A vote for Sharon

Print edition : February 28, 2003

In the context of an impending U.S.-led war against Iraq and an intensifying conflict with Palestinians, Israelis vote the right-wing Likud to power once again.

in Bahrain

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a rally in Tel Aviv to celebrate the electoral victory of Likud.-ECO CLEMENT/GAMMA

THE victory of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud party in the elections to the Knesset (Parliament) was never a matter of doubt. A series of suicide bombings by Palestinian extremists that killed scores of Israelis had brought the issue of security to the top of the electoral agenda. By aggressively and relentlessly carrying out punishing raids on Palestinian self-governing territories, Sharon, in the eyes of a large number of Israelis, had emerged as the only leader on the country's political horizon who had grasped the enormity of the challenge posed by suicide-bombers.

While Sharon's victory was predictable, his success in delivering 38 seats to Likud in the 120-member Knesset came as a surprise to many political observers. With the emergence of Likud as the single largest party in the 16th Knesset, Sharon has positioned himself comfortably to command a new coalition government. With the support of the Shas party, which won 11 seats, and other parties such as the ultra-nationalist National Union party, Sharon can form a narrow right-wing coalition, without assistance from the centrist Labour party or the secularist Shinui party. While Shinui, by winning 15 seats, did surprisingly well, Labour touched the nadir by getting a record low of 19 seats. A right-wing option is available but Sharon can also choose to lower his dependence on the extremist right-wing parties by aligning with Shinui, and possibly with Labour. Although Labour leader Amram Mitzna has maintained that his party would like to sit in Opposition, his stance is likely to change as there are sections in the party that favour the formation of a national unity government under Sharon's stewardship. Mitzna's survival as party leader could be in doubt if he continued to remain inflexible.

The success of Likud at the hustings is much more than a game of numbers as it has far-reaching international ramifications. In fact, the emergence of a stable right-wing government in Israel with centrist support could become a perfect foil for the assertion of a new wave of Pax Americana in West Asia.

Labour leader Amram Mitzna.-SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP

Hence the timing of the Israeli elections is significant. A new Israeli government is set to take over the reins of power at a time when the United States is moving towards a war on Iraq. If the U.S. succeeds in ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, taking advantage of the huge military asymmetry between the two countries, it would be able to position itself in the heart of not only the Persian Gulf but of entire West Asia. Moreover, it is unlikely, in that eventuality, that the U.S. troops will pull out of Iraq for at least a decade. U.S. military presence will become all the more necessary because of Iraq's heterogeneity, which is bound to create social turbulence. Without U.S. military muscle, it may be virtually impossible to keep together Iraq's mixed population of Shias, who constitute the majority community, and Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrians, Christians and Turkomans in a stable political arrangement in Baghdad. U.S. presence may also be required to keep Turkey, which has historical claims over the northern Iraqi oil cites of Mosul and Kikuk, on the margins.

U.S. moves in Iraq are being widely perceived as a geopolitical benchmark of as much importance as the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot pact. The pact, made during the First World War, re-carved the Ottoman Turkish Empire, including Iraq (then Mesopotamia), into various French- and British-administered areas. In return for accepting the British hold over Mesopotamia, France was to control the oil city of Mosul. Although this arrangement never really worked, it set the tone for the San Remo Agreement of 1920, under which the British pledged to give 25 per cent of oil produced in Mesopotamia to France, after it was agreed that Mesopotamia would become a British mandate under the League of Nations.

Most Israeli commentators agree that the Iraq operation will set the pace for a revival of Israel-Palestinian talks, which could also be of equally historic importance in case a rapprochement with the Palestinians is achieved. A thaw in Israel-Palestine relationship, a tall order at the moment, would unlock the nearly half-a-century old rigid West Asian political alignments. While aware of the difficulties, Sharon, in the full flush of electoral success, appears well prepared for talks, in line with the blueprint authored by U.S. President George Bush. (The Bush declaration of June 2002 aims at achieving a progressive Palestinian political transition that would culminate in the formation of a full Palestinian state in 2005 with fixed borders.).

The dominant view in Israel is that Sharon is keen to go ahead with talks because of his personal ambition to go down in history as a tough but pragmatic peacemaker. Already, Sharon has begun making moves that would strengthen his hands during negotiations. Not surprisingly, the Israeli Premier is trying to avoid the option of forming a narrow right-wing government, supported by extremist parties. Such a move, Sharon is well aware, will deny him room for manoeuvre as the extremists are against commencement of talks with Palestinians. At the same time, Sharon is also trying to avoid the formation of a national unity government in which the profile of Labour and Shinui would be unduly high. Ideally, Sharon would try to carry with him Shinui, Labour and Shas and is likely to wait for this to happen. Although Shinui is against sharing power with Shas, it has urged Labour to participate in the government. In fact, the upcoming war in Iraq is seen as a precipitating moment in Israeli politics as Sharon, faced with a major military event in Israel's neighbourhood, may find Shinui, Labour and Shas responding positively to his appeal to form of a national unity government. All major political formations, it is felt, would like to be a part of the Israeli government at a time when the entire political landscape of West Asia may undergo a change.

Several people associated with Israeli think tanks are of the view that given Sharon's focus on striking a peace deal with Palestinians, he is likely to go slow in positioning the 350 km-long security fence along the "green line" that separates mainland Israel from the West Bank area. This is because such a fence, though it might reduce suicide bombings, is also likely to discourage negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Work in progress to construct the security fence, which runs along the green line that separates mainland Israel from the West Bank area. Likud leaders believe that even after the construction of the 350-km-long fence, the country is responsible for the security of the Israeli settlements that exist on Palestinian territory.-SAIF DAHLAH/AFP

During the election campaign, both Labour and Likud had declared their commitment to raise such a fence. However, there was one crucial difference in their approach. Labour saw the wall as a "separation fence". In other words, once the wall is in place, Israel should leave the Palestinians alone and withdraw its military and the administrative machinery from these areas permanently. Likud's approach, on the contrary, was more qualified. Likud leaders point out that even when the wall is ready, Israel cannot detach itself from the West Bank because it is responsible for the security of the Israeli settlements that exist across the green line in Palestinian areas. Apparently, Likud's judgment is influenced by the powerful "settlers lobby".

Moreover, Sharon realised that the erection of the wall at a cost of around $350 million would mean a unilateral declaration of a de facto border between Israel and the Palestinian areas. Such a step would drive Palestinians away from the negotiating table and encourage forces of extremism on the ground.

While Sharon is keen to revive talks, he may also be taking a second look at his possible interlocutors from the Palestinian side. Sharon's antipathy to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is well known. Sharon, like several Israelis across the political spectrum, holds Arafat guilty of choosing the second Intifada over a peace deal, based on the Oslo accords that former U.S. President Bill Clinton had brokered. Most Israelis are convinced that the precedent of a unilateral pullout of Israel from Lebanon, in turn, was behind Arafat's decision. If the Hezbollah could drive out the Israelis from Lebanon, why could not the Palestinians do the same in their territories? But despite this perception, the pragmatist in Sharon may bury his natural instincts and take a second look at re-engaging Arafat in case he arrives at the conclusion that it is Arafat alone, and not the new generation of Palestinian leaders, who has the authority to deliver a peace deal. Israel watchers point out that reports of Sharon recently opening back-channel contacts with Arafat's unofficial deputy Abu Mazen are not without significance.

In getting his act together for negotiations, Sharon, apart from centrists in his coalition, might require the services of Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister in the previous government. With his dovish image and his deep involvement in the Oslo process, Peres may give the ideal public face to the hard negotiations that Sharon wishes to undertake with the Palestinian leadership. Not surprisingly, Sharon's main trouble-shooters, Dov Weisglas and former Minister Dan Meridor, have been discussing with Peres the Prime Minister's version of the "road map" for peace. Peres, in turn, is reportedly engaged in consultations with Arafat's financial adviser Mohammad Rashid, and security adviser Mohammad Dahlan. Hence it was not accidental that both Peres and Rashid were seen together at the World Economic Forum at Davos recently.

APART from its larger international ramifications, the results of the elections also brought into focus the startling realignments that the Israeli society is witnessing. The rising clout of the right-wing can be, to a considerable extent, attributed to the significant changes in Israel's demographic profile. For instance, the one million Russian Jewish people, who are relatively new immigrants and comprise nearly one-sixth of Israel's population of 6.5 million, have made a significant difference in recent elections. Unable to integrate with the Ashkenazis - the prosperous, liberal and educated European immigrants - the Russian Jewish people have lurched towards the right-wing parties in order to find a political voice. The new wave of immigration has also brought in a large number of Jewish people into Israel from North Africa, parts of West Asia and India. These people, who form part of the Sephardi line of immigrants, have faced considerable economic hardship after their arrival in Israel. By and large, it is this relatively underprivileged lot that has been one of the key supporters of Shas. The fall in the support of Labour shows the declining influence of the Ashkenazis who came to Israel during the first wave of Jewish immigration. Unable to strike a chord with the younger generation, Labour is giving way to Shinui, which has emerged as a significant new player on the Israeli political scene.

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