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ISRAEL
Sharon abaonds Likud to form a new party
An "earthquake" in Israeli politics?

December 16, 2005 | Page 11

LANCE SELFA explains what's behind the latest political developments in Israel.

MAINSTREAM MEDIA commentators are describing an "earthquake" in Israeli politics following Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's resignation from the right-wing Likud Party November 21 to form a new party. With the defection of high-ranking figures in Likud to Sharon's Kadima, opinion polls show the new party winning a majority of seats in the next Knesset (Israel's parliament), with Likud being pushed into a distant third place behind Labor.

Sharon's founding of the Kadima (which means "Forward") Party has redrawn the map of Israeli politics, which for the last three decades has been dominated by two major political blocs--the Likud and Labor coalitions.

Now, Sharon is being portrayed as a centrist politician, with Likud out on the far-right margins--and the Labor Party, under newly elected leader Amir Peretz, is said to be shifting to the left, emphasizing a "socialist" ideology.

Like all mainstream analysis, though, this picture of the new situation in Israeli politics obscures more than it clarifies.

Likud was formed in 1973 as a fusion between free-market right-wing parties and religious extremists. Sharon became known as the biggest champion of the right-wing settlers who believed they had a god-given right to expropriate Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza.

While the settlers, religious voters and working-class Jews of Middle Eastern descent provided Likud and Sharon with their main support, Sharon himself was always more concerned about military colonization--particularly of the West Bank--than acting out Biblical prophesies. So when he decided last year to evacuate about 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza as part of a unilateral withdrawal, he faced more opposition from the religious zealots in his own party than from either Labor or the military.

The image of Sharon facing down religious fanatics and his subsequent break with Likud has led many Western commentators to characterize him and his new party as "centrists." This is simply nonsense. Neither Sharon's evacuation from Gaza nor his pledge to endorse the Washington-sponsored "road map to peace" will stop his real aims of expanding settlements in the West Bank or unilaterally fixing a border between Israel and a powerless Palestinian mini-state.

As Palestinian commentator Ramzy Baroud wrote on ZNet: "Empowered with unadulterated American support and a corruptible Palestinian leadership, Sharon is hoping to persist with the implementation of his vision that, in his opinion, will secure and irrevocably define Israel's borders--even if at the expense of Palestinian land and rights. Thus, if one must accept that Sharon has indeed metamorphosed from one character to another, it was his move from being a right-wing ideologue to a right-wing strategist. Alas, for Palestinians, the end result is the same."

Sharon and his new party represent a new consensus in the Israeli ruling class that crosses the old Labor/Likud divide. For that reason, Sharon has made high-profile attempts to woo deposed Labor Party leader Shimon Peres to his party. Peres has resigned from Labor, and though he's not running for a Knesset seat, Sharon says he would appoint Peres to a cabinet post in a Kadima-led government.

What's more, Yossi Beilin--usually considered a leading "peace camp" politician and one of the chief negotiators of Oslo--said his small Meretz/Yahad Party would be open to joining a coalition with Sharon's party in the new Knesset.

This only shows just how little distinguished the two main blocs of Israeli politics. Labor--once celebrated by some in the West as an example of "socialism"-- became a more openly neoliberal, center-right party through the 1990s. Under joint Likud-Labor governments in the 1980s and Labor governments in the 1990s, Israel dismantled many social welfare benefits and protections for workers.

Israel made a bid to become a global high-tech hub, sustained by importing immigrant labor from Asia and Eastern Europe. In adopting these neoliberal policies, Labor essentially grabbed hold of Likud's economic program.

And after the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 to produce a final settlement of the "peace process," Labor and Likud became more closely aligned on dealings with the Palestinians. Throughout the second Palestinian intifada that began in September 2000, the positions of most politicians in Labor and Likud became largely indistinguishable.

This is why the Labor Party joined Sharon's government in 2004. Not only did Labor approve of much of Sharon's agenda, but it agreed with him that the settler zealots who threatened to act against the wishes of the Israeli state in Gaza were acting outside the bounds of Zionism--which places ultimate authority in the Jewish state, not religious pronouncements.

Given how much the Zionist establishment has converged, Amir Peretz's upset victory as Labor Party leader in November can be understood.

Peretz, a former leader of Histradrut, the Zionist trade union federation that operates many businesses and administers many social welfare benefits, campaigned as a champion of Jewish workers living in "development towns"--working-class suburbs--who have voted for Likud in the past.

Peretz's supporters believe he can renew Labor--which is today much more of a party of the European-born middle and upper class in Israel--by emphasizing social and economic issues of interest to working-class Israeli Jews. The theory is that Peretz can offer Palestinians a full Israeli pullout from the Occupied Territories--and gain support for it by promising that the billions devoted to war and occupation will be spent on working-class Israelis.

But Labor has already gone so far along with Sharon's plans for West Bank settlements and the apartheid separation wall, it's hard to see how it would step back from that--despite pulling out of Sharon's government after Peretz won his new position.

Since it still places loyalty to Zionism above any commitment to "peace" or equality, the Labor Party under Peretz is likely to buckle in Sharon's direction if Kadima keeps gaining in the opinion polls.

With an election probable in March 2006, the new Israeli political alignments will be put to the test. But whatever happens in the upcoming vote, Baroud's caution is well taken: "Alas, for Palestinians, the end result is the same."

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