The Magazine

Israel After Sharon . . .

And Palestine after Fatah.

Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Tel Aviv

IT HAS BEEN, as usual, another eventful week in Israel. On January 24, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert--poised to lead his party Kadima (Forward), founded only months ago by the stricken Ariel Sharon, to a decisive victory in the upcoming March 28 national elections--gave his first major public address. Two days later, in their first elections in ten years, Palestinians repudiated their corrupt and despotic Fatah-led government and gave the militant Islamic group Hamas--branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and Europe, and openly dedicated to Israel's destruction--a decisive majority of 76 seats in their 132-seat parliament.

Hamas's landslide victory--an outcome largely unanticipated not only by Israel but also apparently by Hamas--presents Olmert with the first crisis of his government, and of his campaign. After a special meeting with his national security advisers, he announced late Thursday that he would not talk with a Hamas government. Many difficult questions loom: Will Hamas unleash a new round of terror? Will the international community now cut off its massive transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority? Will Fatah join the government or remain in opposition? Will the responsibility for ruling and delivering services work to domesticate Hamas? At what pace will Israel proceed with unilateral disengagement? In formulating policies to deal with these difficult questions, Olmert is fortunate that his overall outlook is supported by a new public consensus, a consensus that is closely connected to successful Israeli leadership and failed Palestinian leadership.

An old friend's opinion, delivered four days before the Palestinian elections, is telling: "The Palestinians only understand the language of strength. I don't think we will have peace with them until the army reenters Gaza and the West Bank with tanks and planes and crushes the terrorists." This caught me somewhat by surprise. It's not that there haven't been many voices in Israel over the years expressing grim judgments of this sort. Or that the grim judgment lacks grounds. But this voice was coming from the left, from a former kibbutznik, a medical doctor and a man of peace.

We were visiting the kibbutz where he grew up, on the edge of the Negev, next to the Gaza Strip (hundreds of Hamas's Kassam missiles have fallen here), chatting in the chilly Shabbat evening air, at a birthday party for the 93-year-old matriarch of the family. She was surrounded by her five children, some 15 to 20 grandchildren, and another 15 or so great grandchildren. One of the grandchildren, and himself a new father, my friend was confident that the new Kadima party would survive the prime minister's incapacitation. Indeed, in the weeks since Sharon's stroke, Kadima has slightly increased its commanding lead in the polls, which now indicate that in two months' time it is likely to win more than twice as many seats as either Labor or Likud.

This makes sense, my friend tells me, because Kadima's ascendance reflects profound changes in the Israeli public. On national security, a substantial group of voters on the right, following Sharon, has abandoned the idea of an Israeli future that involves ruling over Palestinians. And a substantial group of voters on the left, if they have not abandoned the idea of finding a negotiating partner among the Palestinians, has at least acquired an intense skepticism about the prospects. At the same time, many voters on the left have rejected Labor's statist principles and have embraced the need for free market reforms. While they would soften the severe fiscal discipline initiated by the Sharon government, they are determined to continue with privatization.

In short, Kadima has arisen out of the union of pragmatic, center-leaning conservatives who have broken off from the most doctrinaire members of Likud, and pragmatic, center-leaning liberals who have broken off from the most doctrinaire members of Labor. This pivotal development should not be confused with the overhyped Third Way of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton. There the emphasis was on top-down theoretical innovations and the formulation of policies designed to cobble together transitory majorities. What Sharon wrought, however, was something solid: the formulation of principles on national security and economic policy that both reflected his own considered judgment on Israel's most urgent needs and, after almost three decades in which his country was in the grips of ideology-driven politics, gave expression as well as shape to a vital Israeli center. But will this emergent center hold?