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Towards the next Israeli elections

Sunday 18 December 2005, by Michel WARSHAVSKY

The decision to prematurely hold elections to the Israeli Knesset, was made unavoidable by the deep crisis within both the Israeli political system and its parties. This crisis spans the political spectrum. Until his recent departure from the right wing Likud, Prime Minister Sharon was in a minority position within his own party.

An earthquake?

On the left the eviction of Shimon Peres from the Labor party leadership was immediately followed by the decision of Amir Peretz, the new Labor leader, to order his party’s ministers to resign from Sharon’s government. Losing Labor support, Sharon potentially faced totally dependency on his opponents in the Likud, a situation that would render him unable to implement any kind of coherent policy. Sharon is very interested in establishing his reputation as a great figure of the modern era and not only as the “hero” of the infamous Sabra and Shatilla massacres in 1982..At the age of eighty, he doesn’t have much time to try to do it. As a result, in typical Sharon fashion, he took a dangerous bet and decided to leave the Likud and establish a new party without his traditional rivals of Benyamin Netanyahou and Uzi Landau.
The turmoil of the Israeli political map is often presented as an earthquake and Ariel Sharon’s formation of Kadima as the opening of a completely new era. Such conceptions, however, are somewhat overstated. To see why, let’s analyze three main aspects of the Israeli political reality.

a) A New Sharon or a New Likud?

The last move of Ariel Sharon is often presented as the result of a break he has made with his previous ideology, a “turn to the left”. We will analyze Sharon’s politics in one of our next columns; we can, however, point to the fact that there are no indications whatsoever of a changed in Sharon political line. What has occurred instead is a shift of his former party to the right; Sharon didn’t move, the Likud did, leaving Sharon and his faction to its left.

Indeed, the Likud has changed since the old days of Menachem Begin. The main change is not ideological, although the ultra-rightists – like Uzi Landau – are more powerful than in the past. Likud leaders like Netanyahu or Sylvan Shalom are not essentially more to the right than Ariel Sharon, but using right-wing demagogy in order to gain power inside the party and, if possible, on the national scene.

What is new in the Likud leadership is the existence of powerful interest- groups – including mafia-connected gangs – which are fighting to no end in order to protect and enlarge their own material and financial interests. With brutal neo-liberalism, business and politics are closely connected, and for many, the political game is only a means to gain access to economic control, markets, juicy projects, and money, a lot of money. The ideological struggle is no more than a way to achieve personal material interests.

This degeneration is not peculiar to the Likud; dozens of senior politicians of most political parties are presently under trial or inquiry for either corruption or the mishandling of public funds. The Likud is only one step ahead of the others, including leaders who have left the party, like former minister Tsahi Hanegbi and, of course, Ariel Sharon himself.

One should not underestimate the depth of the problem, as well as the fact that corruption and mafia-politics have become a structural aspect of Israeli political culture. Ariel Sharon’s inability over the last three years, to gain the support of his party necessary to make political decisions is the direct result of the gravitation of Israeli political elites towards narrow personal interests, and thus the impossibility of the development of a “national agenda”.

b) The Death of the Old-Labor

With the death of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party – which was hegemonic in Israeli politics until the mid-seventies – entered a phase of fatal degeneration. More than half of its voters left for other political formations, and its leadership lost any autonomous profile on both political and socio-economical issues. Labor became a pale reflection of the Likud, and its leader, Shimon Peres, was ready to accept every humiliation in order to receive a small seat in the Likud led Government. Four years ago, all the members of the left wing departed to form Yahad, which never succeeded to take off.

Until three months ago, it was legitimate to speak about “the coma of the Labor Party” and its forthcoming death. There were, however, hidden energies in the rank and file of the party which, at the last moment, decided to oust Shimon Peres and the old bureaucracy, subsequently replacing them with the only man who could give Labor a new life: Amir Peretz.

The election of Amir Peretz at the head of the Labor Party is not simply a change in leadership, but the formation of a new Labor on the ruins of the old one. The former leader of the Israeli workers confederation represents a new generation, a new political line, and a new social orientation. Will he succeed? It depends, above all, on his ability to neutralize his powerful opposition within his own party. It depends also on Peretz’s ability and readiness to mobilize a mass movement around a clearly defined social AND political program. It is too early to predict how far Amir Peretz is ready to go.

c) End of a Consensus

What is certain, however, is that the death of the “new national consensus” shaped in 2000 by Ehoud Barak and subsequently by Ariel Sharon, a consensus based, on the one hand, on unilateralism and a permanent and preventative war against “Palestinian terrorism” and, on the other hand, on brutal and unlimited neo-liberal economic and social policies.

The end of this era is not, as many are trying to explain, the result of a turn by Ariel Sharon, but of the death of old Labor and the emergence of a new Labor profile. Will it last, or will the fate of Peretz be similar to that of Amram Mitzna who only four years ago tried to reform the Labor party, only to be forced into resignation six months after his election to the head of the party. Peretz has two advantages over Mitzna: he is known as a fighter and has social and political foundations in the old Histadrut establishment.
In the meantime, a new fresh wind is blowing in the Israeli political debate, and the national political discourse is not anymore what it used to be since the death of Yitzhak Rabin: social concerns are not anymore a bad word, and ending military- unilateralism is not anymore a taboo.