Opinion: Can Sharon stay on top if hes sandwiched in the center

Ariel Sharon’s reincarnation as a settlement-toppler is sometimes likened to Richard Nixon going to China — an example of how it is often easier for the right to implement left-wing policies than for the left itself to do so.

Sharon’s bolt from Likud and aim, presumably, to lead a coalition with the Labor Party, however, is the equivalent of Nixon actually becoming Chinese. The “right-winger-moves-left” trick, in other words, could cease to work once Sharon completely loses his right-wing credentials.

The ironic result might be that Sharon, assuming he regains the premiership, will find it harder to advance his agenda with (to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson’s more colorful language) the right-wing relieving itself into his tent from the outside, rather than the reverse. In the system of three major parties Sharon has created, the poles to his right and left may become stronger than in the old, more ideologically mish-mashed system.

Now we will have three parties: for unconditional negotiations (Labor), for unilateralism and gradualism (Sharon) and against any concessions (Likud). Disengagement was a new animal that did not exist on our political spectrum; now it will have its own party.

This new animal could actually start life not as a “third” party, like other fleeting experiments such as the DMC (Dash) and the Center Party, but as a “first” party, standing athwart the broad middle, with “extremists” nipping at its heels from both sides.

This sounds like a good thing, even a dream come true, for those of us who would like to see the center strengthened and yearn for a greater sense of national unity. The politics of major democracies is the record of a major party managing to capture the broad center from one side or the other, such as the Republicans in the United States and Labor in Britain.

The question is whether the center can be captured and rule from the center by itself, as Sharon is trying to do.

The danger is that Sharon will fail, leaving behind a mess that creates even more paralysis and disillusionment with our political system. We do not know which forces will have greater pull: the attraction of a popular centrist incumbent atop an untried new party or the machinery and familiarity of Labor and Likud.

What we do know is that the new animal Sharon has created is the first realistically optimistic party — perhaps in the history of the state. I must step back a bit to explain.

Before disengagement, left and right represented, oddly enough, different forms of doom. This is not necessarily true of the peace-through-strength right, always ready for territorial compromise but clear-eyed about the Arab world’s unreadiness to deliver true peace. But it is true about the right’s dominant Greater Israel component, which seems to see an unending struggle in which our only option is to grit our teeth, hang onto all the land and hope for the best.

Less obviously, doom also characterizes the left. Both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, partly for tactical reasons but presumably also out of conviction, used the nuclear-demographic card in justifying their approach to the peace process. Their message was that we had better make peace now or watch our strategic situation worsen as the region nuclearizes and demographics turn against us.

Sharon, to be fair, has also cited demography as an impetus for disengagement. But while the left was always betting that time was not on our side, Sharon is betting that it is. His attempt to park Israel in a “long-term interim” arrangement is a bet that Israel will be better positioned to negotiate a permanent peace agreement in the indefinite future than it is now. It is a bet that our strategic situation will improve over time and is, therefore, fundamentally optimistic.

In an almost unnoticed portion of the press conference announcing his resignation from Likud, Sharon explained that the Arab world still does not accept the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty in this land, and that peace will be possible only when they do so. The tragedy of the left, which has led to tremendous bloodshed, has been its premature belief that the Arab world, even Yasser Arafat, was ready for peace.

Some of the right, on the other end, believes that readiness will never come. What we need is a sober recognition that the Arab world has barely begun to prepare for true peace with Israel, but that the strategic reality nevertheless can and must be moved in that direction.

If anything, I believe Sharon is not optimistic or ambitious enough in not more explicitly linking Arab-Israeli peace to the American-led attempt to beat Arab-Islamic radicalism throughout the region. Perhaps it is prudent for Israel to take a wait-and-see attitude rather than betting that, say, a decade from now, democracy will be more consolidated in Iraq and that the current regimes in Iran and Syria will have changed. But we can hardly be agnostic in this struggle, on which our fate hinges no less than that of America’s.

That said, Sharon is onto something precisely because he is the closest to representing that sweet spot where optimism and realism meet. At this juncture in our history, our best hope is that his party will become the largest in the Knesset, ultimately displacing Likud as the nation’s major center-right party.

For this to happen, this new creation must become more than just the Sharon-disengagement party. At the age of 77, Sharon has taken on his most difficult challenge: creating a party that is greater than himself, anchoring the political spectrum rather than leaving it in shambles.

Democratic polities often secretly hope for a benign dictator. We may be getting our wish, for better and for worse.

Saul Singer is author of “Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle & the World After 9/11” and an editor of the Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.