The Dangerous Center: Making sense of the Israeli elections

The Israeli election this week brought the first electoral victory for the Kadima party. Kadima is the party Ariel Sharon formed after leaving the Likud coalition because of that party’s opposition to the Gaza withdrawal. While Kadima has been in power for all practical purposes since Sharon formed it, it occupies the unusual space of being a “start-up” party that immediately towers over all the others. It is a sign of the times that anyone can call Kadima “centrist” and keep a straight face.

Kadima is centrist in only the most technical sense. It is situated in the middle between Labor on the “left” and Likud on the right. What this really shows is how far to the right Israeli politics have drifted in the wake of the Camp David failure of 2000 and the violence of the second intifada. Likud, always a right-wing party, has now moved to such an extreme that its members openly advocate “transferring” Arab citizens of Israel out of the country.

Labor might be called more “left” than Kadima on social issues. But in dealing with the Palestinians, the new leadership of Amir Peretz has been a profound disappointment, even to those of us whose enthusiasm for him was restrained from the first. Under Peretz, the Labor Party’s platform has looked a lot like Kadima’s. There are no proposals to alter the route of the West Bank Wall, let alone bring it back to the Green line. There are statements about the indivisibility of Jerusalem and the impossibility of surrendering the major settlement blocs. The only difference Labor has had with Kadima is that Labor wants to try to do this with the help of the Palestinians, and only failing that would they act unilaterally. Some difference. Yes, Peretz is likely trying to keep the profile on peace low so that Labor can rebuild its base and, hopefully, add new voters. That’s a reason to keep an eye on Labor for the future. But for now, the party offers very little in the way of an option.

The Meretz party has traditionally been the home of the moderate but true Israeli left. They still are, but Meretz and its leader, Yossi Beilin, have been very clear about their desire to be a part of the next governing coalition. It’s hard to see a party as being left-wing when they want to join a government that has announced the kinds of plans that Ehud Olmert has.

That leaves very little of a left wing in Israel, other than communist and Arab parties. Meanwhile, the more radical right wing groups have gained in strength. From this point of view, one might actually call Kadima “left” relative to Israeli politics, as the Israeli right does.
Kadima’s centrist image is a remnant of the supposed “transformation” of Ariel Sharon. That transformation was based on his Gaza withdrawal plan, and was purported to represent Sharon’s shift from being the “father of the settlements” to the pragmatic leader seeking peace and accepting the fact that the occupation would have to end to bring peace about.

This image is false and is based on a misunderstanding of Sharon. Ariel Sharon was never a believer in the religious nationalism that calls for the redemption of “Jewish land.” He always saw the occupation as a security measure and always saw the settlements as a means of advancing what he believed to be Israel’s national interests. When circumstances dictated that sacrificing the settlements in Gaza, and a few in the West Bank, would better serve Israel’s interests, he did just that. By withdrawing those settlements, he strengthened Israel’s military position, saved considerable expense and created a situation where the Palestinians would be unable to build a functional government or rebuild the economy in Gaza. All the while, Israel maintains full control over Gaza’s borders. This was fully consistent with Sharon’s past actions, not a departure from them.
Ehud Olmert is following in Sharon’s footsteps. Like Sharon, he makes a mockery of the Palestinian Authority, de-legitimizing it in the eyes of Palestinians, then demanding that it behave like a government. The recent raid on the Jericho prison was an obvious example. It was designed, among other things, to humiliate the Palestinians, as was underscored by Israeli soldiers forcing Palestinian police to stand nearly naked for cameras.

Hamas’ election only makes Olmert’s task easier. With Hamas’ refusal to recognize or talk with Israel, Olmert need not even make the case for unilateral steps. That is why Olmert has done everything he could to make sure that Hamas would appear to be caving into pressure if they compromised. Olmert’s announced plan is to annex significant chunks of the West Bank to accommodate the major settlement blocs and to keep the Jordan Valley under Israeli control. As long as the Palestinian Authority is portrayed as unwilling to negotiate, Olmert will be free to take these steps unilaterally.

That is not a peace plan. Right now, it is going over well in Israel because it seems to afford Israelis the ability to separate from the Palestinians without having to go through years of negotiations. But when reality hits and Israelis realize that the Kadima plan will not bring increased security, let alone peace, perhaps Israelis will come back to the simple truth they realized years ago. One side cannot make peace. The imposition of the will of the stronger may change facts on the ground, but it cannot bring an end to conflict or the security Israelis so badly desire.

What Kadima is planning is nothing less than the devastation of the Palestinians, on a scale only hinted at in recent years. A glimpse of what would be in store if Olmert carries out his plan was seen just last week in the Gaza Strip. Reports of a terrorist attack (how reliable, no one can say) gave Israel the excuse to close all the crossings in and out of Gaza to all goods. After weeks of being unable to bring in such basic staples as flour and grain, bakeries in the Strip closed by the hundreds, unable to bake any goods. Gazans faced starvation, not in the long term, but immediately. The international community and, most importantly, the United States stepped in to pressure Israel into opening the Karni Crossing to material goods. Complete disaster was averted, but the Strip remains hungry and unsustainable, with its access to the outside world under the absolute control of Israel. This is not an end to occupation.

The situation in Gaza is a preview of things to come if Olmert brings his West Bank plans to fruition. Palestinians there will also be completely surrounded by Israel, in isolated cantons that will be unable to sustain themselves. That’s what comes from the Israeli “centrist” party. What the right would do is barely imaginable. And unless something truly centrist can come from the tattered remains of an Israeli left, the bitterness of conflict is going to be entrenched for years to come.

What is needed from Israel, and what must be encouraged by Americans who care for the fate of all people in Israel and Palestine, is an abandonment of unilateralism and the acknowledgment that it is unrealistic to expect Palestinians, whether from Fatah, Hamas or any other party, to be partners in their own dispossession. Do not expect any Palestinian to work with Israel to support Israel keeping the Jordan Valley, or keeping the settlement blocs without fully equivalent compensation and provisions to maintain Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank. Most of all, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority must be looking for reasons to build relationships, not reasons to refuse to talk to each other.
None of that seems likely to come from the Israeli “centrists.” It may be unrealistic to expect a true left to rise in Israel, but if Israelis do not pull their political spectrum back from the right-wing direction it has taken in the past five years, they will cement conflict for years to come. For those of us concerned about bringing peace and justice and for the welfare of the Palestinians, we have to help Israelis bring about that change. And it starts by opposing unilateralism and by unmasking political fictions that cast Kadima as a moderate, centrist party.