State of the State

Driving on the four-lane highway past the cushy American-style Tel Aviv suburb of Ra'anana to the Jewish settlement of Ariel, there's a clear drop in the countryside from green trees to brown, rocky hilltops. This is the “Green Line,” the 1967 border. There are no checkpoints to mark contested land because the road was built explicitly for Jewish settlers who live in Ariel and the surrounding settlements to bypass neighboring Arab villages. Ariel is about 14 miles into the heart of the West Bank, surrounded by several smaller settlements, two robust, modern industrial zones (where mostly Palestinians work in the factories), and flourishing illegal outposts that were placed there to thicken the Jewish population between the Green Line and Ariel. Just as in the Gaza settlements that were evacuated this summer, other than the settlers themselves -- and Israeli soldiers sent to protect them -- few Israelis come here.

When I visited in July with Dror Ettkes, from Peace Now's Settlement Watch (full disclosure: I serve on the board of Americans for Peace Now), we saw a tractor moving along the outskirts of Ariel like a snail, trailed by a security vehicle clearing land in preparation for the boundary that will rise from the rocky earth, cutting off Israel from Palestinian territory. The final line for the barrier is still unclear, but the fact of it is not: At least for the foreseeable future, this could well mark the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The wall is a unilateral step by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as were the withdrawals from Gaza and four small northern West Bank settlements this summer. And Sharon, the mastermind of the settlement project to shore up territory for Israel beyond the Green Line, is planning more unilateral moves down the road. Meanwhile, the Israeli left, which for years promoted “land for peace,” has been sidelined from the entire process. It won't get a political bounce from the successful dismantling of settlements. This is especially ironic because the peace camp (in Israel left and right usually denote the peace camp and hawks) has been railing against settlements for decades.

How has it happened that the left's most cherished goal has come about, and yet the left is nowhere to be seen? There's no doubt that Israelis are tired of what they call “the situation.” Today, a majority of Israelis want a two-state solution and are willing to give back more even more land. But tired of the Oslo peace process and negotiations, which didn't appear to be yielding any final-status arrangement, they became disgusted by -- and fearful of -- the violence of the Palestinian intifada. So while they support land for peace, they mostly support separation. Quite simply, their state of mind is dead center, and Sharon has met them where they are. At the same time, the left has neglected to address itself to the growing economic distress of many Israelis. This inattention has been tragic for the once-dominant Labor Party, which now finds itself increasingly seen as the party of the elite, with nothing to offer the people. Can Israel's left find a way back? Some of it depends on the left, and much of it depends on Sharon.

* * *

It is testimony to Sharon's political savvy -- and the public's political ennui -- that the historically hard-right prime minister has found himself able to shore up support in the wide swath of the political center. As Yossi Alpher, a member of the Council for Peace and Security -- a respected group of high-level reserve generals, colonels, and former Shin Bet and Mossad (Israel's FBI and CIA, respectively) officials, plus an erstwhile Ehud Barak adviser -- observed: “Once Sharon, with his tough warrior image, grasped the necessity of unilateral security measures, he could present himself to the public as both the victor in the intifada and the only leader capable of dismantling settlements. No one on the left could -- or can -- do that.”

Sharon is getting good at this. Time and again, tracking the exhaustion of the Israeli public, Sharon has taken the arguments and proposals of the left and made them his own. The Israeli people, after all, tried to give peace a chance. But they were bitterly disillusioned after the collapse of the Oslo peace process, as well as by Yasir Arafat's shenanigans during his waning years and by four years of suicide bombings inside Israel proper. In fact, Sharon's 2001 victory over the last Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak, followed Arafat's rejection of an agreement proposed by President Clinton in the last days of Clinton's administration. Following those failed negotiations, the intifada began, and the Israeli public mood shifted in response. The Israeli people were tired of the left's claims that there is, in the Palestinians, a “partner for peace,” and they began to think that unilateralism might be the answer.

One unilateral proposal that came from the peace camp as a response to the intifada -- and that was co-opted by Sharon -- was the separation barrier. It was conceived of in 2002 by the members of the Council for Peace and Security, who are committed to a two-state solution. They saw the barrier as a way to curtail terrorism and to build a border as close as possible to the 1967 Green Line (thereby cutting off the settlements on the other side). Sharon initially resisted this proposal because he realized it would be a political border and would leave many settlements behind. But, pressured by Israelis upset with terrorist attacks inside Israel, Sharon began construction of the barrier -- part electrified fence, part 25-foot-high cement wall -- midway through the second intifada, in June 2002.

A Gaza-first withdrawal plan, recently adopted by Sharon, was also a strategy embraced by some on the left. Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna ran on this platform in 2003. Mitzna, however, was also calling for a return to negotiations, and back then, with Arafat still the interlocutor, the voters weren't buying. Sharon trounced Mitzna in that election and pursued withdrawal from Gaza with no intent -- and under virtually no pressure from the Israeli public or the Americans -- to seek out a negotiating partner in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Now, with the future of West Bank settlement coming to the fore, extra-parliamentary groups like Peace Now are trying to promote a return to negotiations. But unless the left elects its own prime minister, a unilateral approach is likely to trump serious negotiations.

Meanwhile, the left's old argument against occupation -- that it is immoral -- has been all but eclipsed by a more reactionary argument for settlement withdrawal based on demographics. The rapidly growing Palestinian population means that if Israel were not to relinquish more territory, it would have two choices: become a full-fledged apartheid state or give up on the Zionist ideal of a Jewish democratic state with an Arab minority. It's an argument -- with broad appeal -- that Sharon used to his advantage in implementing the Gaza withdrawal and immediately relieving Israel of responsibility for 1.3 million Palestinians. Even the peace camp has picked up this argument. But making this a core part of the debate complicates matters even further for the left. It immediately cuts off the 20 percent of the Arab sector from voting for anyone on the left who makes this argument. This is especially bad news for the Labor Party, which needs a significant vote from the Arab sector to become a majority party again. According to sociologist Aziz Haidar, editor of the influential Israeli Arab Society Yearbook of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, “Since 1992, the Labor Party got less and less Arab votes. Most of the Arab population today doesn't want to vote, like me. I am not going to vote because it's a competition between parties that never deal with problems of the Arab population.”

The left has been effective in extra-parliamentary moves. Early in Sharon's term, Yossi Beilin put forward a document called the Geneva Initiative. Beilin is the figure most identified in Israeli politics with the Oslo Accords and now heads up Meretz, a small party to Labor's left whose support comes from the shrinking kibbutz movement and an educated, secular elite. Beilin's initiative, a shadow final-status agreement with Palestinian co-signers including a compromise on Jerusalem and more West Bank withdrawal than Sharon wants, garnered 30 percent of public support upon its announcement in December 2003 and continues to enjoy strong international backing. According to several reports in the Israeli papers leading up to the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon's advisers acknowledged that the Geneva Initiative forced his hand. Still, even here Sharon prevailed: By pushing the Gaza evacuation, Sharon was able to co-opt the public's desire and sideline the international community.

* * *

With all his repositioning, the irony is that Sharon enters into anticipated early elections -- perhaps sometime after the first of the year -- as the most popular Israeli leader in years, except in his own party. Israel is not slated to hold the next election until November 2006, but an internal Likud meeting in late September will be a referendum on Sharon. If he loses his party's leadership battle, he'll be forced to call new national elections. In Israel, politicians run for office ranked by votes they receive in an internal party primary. The majority of Likud voters are hardcore right wing, and according to early polls, they're angry with Sharon for giving back Gaza and are supporting his rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That is pushing Sharon to work his political magic, looking for support from the vast political center. One option for Sharon is to create a party of the center, perhaps along with Shimon Peres, the current Labor Party chief, and Tommy Lapid, the head of the Shinui Party, an anti-clerical, free-market party. This potential group has been dubbed the “Old Men's Party” -- (Peres is 82, Sharon, 77, and Lapid, 73). But Sharon clearly may not need the other “old men” to find a middle ground. He may also form a new party of the center on his own and invite Labor to join him. (Given Labor's ineffectiveness, some of the party's longtime supporters are exasperated. In fact, Gidon Levy, one of the most dovish journalists in Israel, wrote in the newspaper Ha'aretz that Sharon should simply take over Labor: “Shimon Peres was prime minister twice. Never uprooted even a single plant from a garden of one of the settlements. The withdrawal from Gaza was possible and should have been done long ago, but this only happened under Sharon's leadership. Therefore, the merger of Sharon and Labor is liable to be the correct combination.”)

Centrist parties in Israel have a history of imploding upon entry, most recently in 1977 and 1999, when new parties and new alliances were forged to great fanfare, eventually leaving both parties in the dust. But Sharon is slyer than anyone else in Israeli politics today. He could defy the historic odds. Plus, the odd status of the peace process and the breakdown of old ideologies put Israeli politics in flux. There is a realignment waiting to be born. If some variation on centrism rules Israel in this next period, and if the White House continues its hands-off approach, it's likely that the impulse will continue more toward unilateralism than negotiations.

Meanwhile, Sharon isn't waiting for another election. Alpher, the former Barak adviser, predicts that if Sharon is re-elected, he will “present strict security conditions, and when, inevitably, the Palestinians fail to satisfy them, he's most likely to opt for another round of unilateral withdrawals. It is these unique circumstances that enable Sharon, who distrusts peace agreements with Arabs, to be seen at one and the same time to be fighting terrorism and dismantling the settlements he himself built.”

If Sharon is able to implement future unilateral moves, they are likely to include consolidation and enhancement of the settlement blocs, including a 47-square-mile area in and around Ariel. The other two encompass the Gush Etzion bloc between Bethlehem and Hebron and the Ma'ale Adumim settlement between Jerusalem and Jericho -- where Sharon has already authorized new building. While it's likely that Sharon will evacuate more of the outlying West Bank settlements, there are at least 12,800 new settlers in the West Bank this year, and there's building going on in all the settlement blocs. Additionally, Sharon and Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox mayor already have plans drawn up to settle 35,000 more Jews in greater Jerusalem.

There's one thing that such a centrist alliance wouldn't be able to address in a coherent fashion: economic issues. This is a gaping hole in Israeli politics today, and particularly on the Israeli left, obscured as it has been for decades by the search for peace. And it is here that the Labor party must look for its salvation.

Labor is slated to hold a party primary this fall in preparation for early elections (or those in 2006). Peres, the current leader, could hold on to his chair, but he is old and certainly doesn't represent the future of the party, and he'll no doubt continue to keep Labor in a junior alliance with Sharon. Though younger, former Prime Minister Barak tried to make a comeback this past summer and failed from lack of popular support.

But there's a potential wild card in the Labor race who could infuse new energy into both Labor and a national campaign: Amir Peretz, the leader of Israel's Histadrut trade-union federation, who could also force new elections by pulling Labor out of the government, as he's said he'd do. Peretz offers the possibility of a revival largely because he -- neither a former general nor a supporter of neoliberal economic policies -- is finally turning his party's attention to the economic concerns that both parties in Israel have long ignored as they addressed the priority of peace.

* * *

An oddity of left-right politics in Israel is that the economic elites vote left, while the working class votes to the right. Ever since the vast immigration of Jews from North Africa in the 1950s -- mostly Moroccan -- Labor and its junior ally, the more left-wing Meretz Party, have been seen as anti-Sephardic, or discriminatory toward Jews from Arab countries. It's these Jews who form the working class. This has created all sorts of pluses and minuses for the peace camp through the years. On the plus side, an elite base helps with fund raising for peace initiatives. In fact, some of the very same business leaders who for years supported anti-Sharon peace rallies have answered his request to financially back the unilateral Gaza move.

But the peace camp hasn't done the hard work necessary to bring the working-class and poorer sectors with them. Actually, it's done quite the opposite. For as long as he's been dreaming of peace, Peres, the perennial Labor leader, has heralded peace's potential for regional free-trade zones and the like. But right now, Israeli poverty is on the rise, and the middle class feels increasingly squeezed. Israel's National Insurance Institute reported this summer that one in three Israel children are living below the poverty line. Voters want peace dividends in their communities, not speculative promises about regional economic integration. Even though the right promotes the very policies that brought the poverty, it uses fiery rhetoric and stokes decades of resentment, which keep the poorer sectors voting for its candidates (not unlike the Republican Party poaching working-class support from the Democrats).

Labor needs to mobilize on this front. In 2000, the party moved its offices from the high-rent district of central Tel Aviv to the forlorn Hatikva neighborhood. At the time, the move was trumpeted as Labor's return to the masses, but in fact the move occurred because the party's coffers were barren and the cheaper Hatikva quarter made financial sense. Whether it makes political sense, long term, depends on much more than the symbolism of a party office. It depends on Labor expanding its umbrella over the large number of Israelis who gave up on it long ago.

That's where Peretz, who has always supported the peace camp, comes in. “I am a peace person, and I fully support the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he told me this summer. “But in Israel, if you ask someone if they are left or right, they will tell you about Mahmoud Abbas or Arafat, not about single mothers.” To drive home his point, he created a campaign document called “An Ethical Road Map for Israel,” which argues for the “establishment of a Palestinian state … [that will allow Israel to channel] resources inwardly: caring for our own citizens, meeting their needs, closing social gaps, and enhancing social justice.”

In mid-July, I visited the Labor Party compound to attend a Peretz rally. The participants seemed like a combined convention of the union-building trades and a rainbow coalition with a smattering of New York City Upper West Side intellectuals -- exactly the coalition that Peretz hopes to ride to victory. Bulky union chiefs sat between elegantly robed Druze leaders from the Northern Galilee and Russian Ph.D.s who left academic jobs in Russia only to be hired as taxi drivers in Israel. All of them listened as university student leaders and professors alike praised Peretz. Born in Morocco, he took to the podium with a force befitting a soapbox orator, telling the crowd, “If the agenda will be disengagement, Likud will win; but if the agenda will also be social, we will win.” (The rally was called on the same day that the Likud Party introduced a bill clearly aimed at stopping Peretz's rise to power. It stipulates that the head of the Histadrut can't also serve in the Knesset. A Meretz legislator told me that he was called by Peres to lobby for its passage and against Peretz.)

Whether Peretz is ultimately Labor's candidate or not, he is pointing toward a direction that could lead Labor out of its wilderness. A new generation of nonmilitary leaders with a vision of peace and social solidarity needs to emerge and take charge. Peretz is one. Another is Ofir Pines-Paz, the popular 43-year-old Labor Party minister of the interior who publicly criticized the 2006 government budget and reached out to the Arab population. Paz, who is considered future prime-minister material, told me, “I think that generals understand conflicts, but that Israel needs those who are professionals in security and defense and understand civil needs.”

As long as Israel's existence was threatened, no one could think about social and economic issues. But that moment is gone. Even without a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel's secure existence is a fact. The public now wants to address other issues even while figuring out how to separate from the Palestinians, and the left has failed to dominate in the transition to peace.

Still, the left could get a pass if Netanyahu wins as head of the Likud, because he's such a right-wing lightening rod. Any Labor Party leader would gain support by the silent majority against Netanyahu, who's disliked -- and mistrusted -- by most Israelis. Even the business leaders who hailed his deregulation and liberalization program worry about him at the helm of government. With Netanyahu as head of the Likud list, Sharon would be forced not only into the dead center but perhaps further to the left than he ever envisioned, and could also lead disillusioned and Labor voters to turn out to vote for the tattered party once again. But whether it's through the Labor Party or something new, the Israeli left, composed of a shrinking base among the elites, needs to promote an alternative social and economic vision for the future. Otherwise, it will fade away for good.

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel and is the co-author of Our Hearts Invented A Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today's Israel?

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