The biggest Shoes to Fill

The Guardian- 06/01/2006

If the massive cerebral hemorrhage suffered by Ariel Sharon marks the end of this remarkable man’s political career then Israeli public life is about to lose the figure who above all others reshaped Israeli politics and diplomacy in the post-Oslo period. In recent months Sharon fundamentally transformed both Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians and the internal Israeli political map.

The disengagement from Gaza of August 2005 represented a shift away from the split over the “land for peace” issue that has dominated Israeli policy discussion since 1967. Israel has no partner, so Israel must act alone to shape an interim arrangement, went the new paradigm. Sharon’s deliberate destruction of his Likud party, and his founding of the new, centrist Kadima list, was a move of corresponding boldness on the domestic Political front.

Sharon brought with him many of Likud’s most prominent leaders, as well as attracting his friend and rival Shimon Peres from Labour. According to polls, Kadima was carving out a dominant position at the centre of Israeli politics: it stood to gain around 40 seats, Amir Peretz’s Labour party was on 21 seats, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud on 14.

The problem was that all this depended on one man alone: Sharon. There was a sense in which the Israeli public’s endorsement of him was based on a visceral trust in his ability to steer the ship of state, rather than enthusiasm for specific policies. Despite his bold practical moves, Sharon thus enunciated no clear political testament to which his successors in Kadima may claim to be loyal.

Kadima’s standing in the polls stayed steady after Sharon’s minor stroke just over two weeks ago — mainly because of his rapid return. But a poll at the time found that under different leadership the list could expect only30  seats. A Kadima leadership race may now be expected. Ehud Olmert is likely to act as prime minister until the elections, but his standing is nowhere near that of Sharon, and it should not be assumed that the other major figures in Kadima will automatically rally around him.

For Labour and Likud, Sharon’s absence from the campaign would mean that victory becomes a possibility again. Netanyahu probably has most to gain as Likud rather than Labour saw a massive departure for Kadima. Netanyahu will be hoping that some of that lost support will now return. Without Sharon, what may emerge for the first time is a Knesset based on three large parties holding similar numbers of seats.

The collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000 left avoid in Israeli politics. Sharon filled it. His bold action against Palestinian attacks, combined with his willingness to redraw old orthodoxies, caught the mood of an Israeli public weary of conflict but unconvinced of the presence of a partner for peace. He brooked no equals and anointed no heirs. If he is now departing the stage he leaves an empty spot at its centre. But the public consensus upon which his premiership rested is unlikely to depart with him. The readiness for territorial concessions and the skepticism over the Palestinian side — seemingly confirmed by a growth in Islamist rejectionism — have become the defining characteristics of the Israeli mainstream.

Sharon’s ability to speak to that mainstream brought him the unprecedented standing he enjoyed on the Israeli political scene. It enabled him to hold Israel together through four years of strife, with no real cracks in support for his methods of defense, and made possible the Gaza disengagement. It is now clear that stable government in Israel is only possible on the basis of this skeptical post-Oslo consensus. The party that will achieve victory in the post-Sharon era will be the one most able to credibly reflect the concerns of that consensus.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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