Opinion: How to tell left from right in Israeli politics

Israeli politics is undergoing its most dramatic changes in 30 years. The realignment of parties and leaders is all the more remarkable because the latest developments — the defeat of Shimon Peres as Labor Party chairman, the party’s withdrawal from the government and Ariel Sharon’s decision to quit the ruling Likud Party — were so unexpected.

So it is all the more important to comprehend the significance of these changes for the future of Israel, the region and the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Israel’s political system is, to put it simply, coming to the end of its second era. From independence in 1948 until 1977 the Labor Party was dominant before giving way to an opposition coalition of conservative, nationalist and centrist parties allied in the Likud bloc. Since then, the two parties have taken turns in power, sometimes in grand coalitions and often in partnership with smaller parties.

On the surface, party competition has been between left and right, or hawks and doves. The truth, of course, is more complex. Social class and economic issues, overshadowed by the persistence of more existential concerns — physical security and the continued existence of the state — have played a much less important role in Israel than in other societies.

Here, the political divide could be defined as “optimists” versus “pessimists.” The former, as in Labor, believed that some day a force would emerge among Arabs and Palestinians ready to make peace on a reasonable basis; the latter, as in Likud, were more doubtful.

For years, the argument remained an abstraction, a debate over what might happen in the future, until the Oslo accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993 put the competing perspectives to the test. Since 2000, when PLO leader Yasser Arafat rejected a political settlement and instead launched a five-year war of terrorism, there have been few optimists left.

The subsequent intellectual realignment in Israel has given rise to a new national consensus. It is now generally accepted that, as the left has always insisted, Israel should be ready to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and accept a Palestinian state in exchange for real peace.

But it is also accepted that, as the right has always maintained, there is no partner ready to make real peace. In this context, Sharon gained two landslide election victories as a hard-liner, but implemented a moderate policy, including a full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

This is where Israel stands today, facing a political upheaval fueled by two developments. First, Sharon moved Likud to the center, making it the hegemonic party while destroying every stereotype about his personality, methods andworldview.

For the same reason, though, many within Likud view Sharon — who helped found the party — as a traitor. Having quit Likud, Sharon needs to institutionalize his reforms through the new party he is now to create. Second, the Labor Party has proven politically bankrupt, its only conceivable leader being the 82-year-old Shimon Peres, and its anachronistic, dovish optimism the source of much ridicule.

As a result, and helped by low voter-turnout, the party’s leadership primary was won by Amir Peretz, an outsider and populist who wants to revitalize Labor by putting social and economic issues at the forefront, which means withdrawing from the national unity coalition with Likud.

Sharon’s new centrist grouping will probably defeat Peretz’s Labor Party and Likud (its leadership won’t be decided until party primaries). Peretz’s strategy may draw voters from other parties on the left, but Labor will most likely lose centrist voters (and those for whom national security is paramount) to Sharon.

Paradoxically, all this will mean both a great deal in principle and perhaps little in practice. With Sharon enjoying a strong public mandate for a moderate policy, Israel will be more ready than ever to make a deal with the Palestinians, Syria and the Arab world in general for a comprehensive diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Yet given the chaos and paralysis that increasingly characterize Palestinian politics, that opportunity will go untaken. The rising power of Hamas, which openly proclaims its strategy of increasing terrorism and its goal of destroying Israel, reinforces that trend. The same can be said of Syria, whose hard-line government is turning toward a dangerously adventurous militancy.

Sharon might decide on partial withdrawals and the dismantling of settlements on the West Bank. But it is now widely recognized that such changes are a response to dim prospects of real progress toward peace. Holding onto territory as a bargaining chip makes less sense if there is no one with whom to bargain.

Instead, Israel will continue to prioritize its own security, strengthening its defenses against terrorism and consolidating control over the relatively small portions of the West Bank it intends to claim as part of an eventual diplomatic settlement. A byproduct of this strategy, combined with ongoing Palestinian attacks, has been growing international sympathy with Israel.

That too could continue if the current political realignment proves permanent, enabling Sharon to win over the center and even moderate left for his program.

Nothing is assured, of course. Benjamin Netanyahu could emerge as a powerful Likud candidate on Sharon’s right, and Peretz might yet shape Labor into a serious contender on his left.

Nevertheless, the national consensus has shifted, shaking all assumptions about Israeli politics. The elections will put those assumptions to their severest test in decades.

Barry Rubin is editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. This column previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post.