Monday, January 09, 2006

What Next for Israel?

With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in critical condition and not expected to return to office, many are asking what will happen to Israel if he cannot return to lead it. Will Israel's next leader continue to pursue the peace and security sought by Sharon's disengagement policies? What about the upcoming national election and Sharon's new political party, Kadima?

With national elections set for March 28, decisions about Kadima's future have been largely frozen during Sharon's health crisis. The party, cobbled together mainly from defectors from Likud and the rival Labor Party, has not selected a candidate list for the elections.

Party unity appeared to receive a boost Sunday when Shimon Peres, the onetime Labor leader and former prime minister, ended his silence about whether he would continue with Kadima or return to his old party by telling Israel Radio that he supported [deputy prime minister] Olmert.

Charles Krauthammer questions the future of Kadima without Sharon:

The problem is that the vehicle for this Sharonist centrism, his new Kadima Party, is only a few weeks old, has no institutional structure and is hugely dependent on the charisma of and public trust in Sharon.

To be sure, Kadima is not a one-man party. It immediately drew large numbers of defectors from the old left and right parties (Labor and Likud), including cabinet members and members of parliament. It will not collapse overnight. But Sharon's passing from the scene will weaken it in the coming March elections and will jeopardize its future. Sharon needed time, perhaps just a year or two, to rule the country as Kadima leader, lay down its institutional roots and groom a new generation of party leaders to take over after him.

This will not happen. There is no one in the country, let alone in his party, with his prestige and standing. Ehud Olmert, his deputy and now acting prime minister, is far less likely to score the kind of electoral victory that would allow a stable governing majority.

Kadima represents an idea whose time has come. But not all ideas whose time has come realize themselves. They need real historical actors to carry them through. Sharon was a historical actor of enormous proportion, having served in every one of Israel's wars since its founding in 1948, having almost single-handedly saved Israel with his daring crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and now having broken Israel's left-right political duopoly that had left the country bereft of any strategic ideas to navigate the post-Oslo world. Sharon put Israel on the only rational strategic path out of that wreckage. But, alas, he had taken his country only halfway there when he himself was taken away. And he left no Joshua.

In The Times (London), Tim Hames takes an optimistic view, arguing that 'Ariel Sharon will not be indispensable — he's altered Israel too much':

Kadima might have needed Mr Sharon to start it; it does not, though, require him to maintain it. He may turn out to have been its Moses figure. If he had died or been removed earlier from political life, even in the first half of 2005, it may not have developed as it has.

The dilemma for Israel and the peace process is not that Mr Sharon cannot continue to serve as Prime Minister. It is that there is no equivalent to Mr Sharon in the Arab world. There is no one willing to acknowledge publicly that the Palestinians cannot have all that they might want, just as Israelis cannot have everything they might desire.

There is no one prepared to state what is absolutely obvious, namely that any return to the boundaries of 1967, let alone those of 1948, is a ludicrous notion. There is no one willing to declare openly that not only do those who surround Israel have to recognise its right to exist, but that their societies will thrive only when they begin to emulate the democratic values, economic ingenuity and cultural diversity that explain why Israel’s gross domestic product exceeds that of its vastly more populous neighbours combined.

The Economist arrived in today's mail and its article on the subject had this subtitle: "The death or departure of Israel's superhawk will darken hopes for peace."

It's hard to tell which view will be right. The departure of Sharon will certainly complicate things, the future may depend on the rest of Kadima's leadership. As we wait for updates and the election approaches, we may have to hope that party unity will show Israel that progress can continue without changing to an unknown course.

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