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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - December 5, 2005

Q. Which dramatic change in Israeli politics can be termed "strategic"? Q. What are the ramifications of Peres' decision to leave the Labor party after nearly 50 years?

Q. Which of the many recent dramatic changes on the Israeli political scene can be termed "strategic", in the sense that they are substantive rather than cosmetic or personal?

A. The first and most obvious such change is one we have had occasion to mention in the past two weeks: thanks to the ceasefire, disengagement and the selection of Abu Mazen to replace the late Yasser Arafat, there is a general shift to the left on the part of the Israeli public. Kadima emerged from the less hawkish part of Likud and seeks to fill the political center. Amir Peretz brings more dovish positions on the Palestinian issue to the Labor leadership, and is definitely more left-wing in his socio-economic programs than his predecessors. And with Kadima and Labor dominating the polls and Likud currently predicted to shrink to as few as nine (!) mandates, the next coalition is likely to be a left-center one. Still, in the election campaign itself, Likud, Kadima and Labor are all likely to devote much of their energies to voters at the political center and to tailor their platforms accordingly, since this is where the large floating or uncommitted vote lies.

A second perceivable shift concerns the issues upon which the election is likely to be fought. In the best Israeli tradition, security and the Palestinian issue will continue to be central to most campaigns, with hawks at one end of the spectrum advocating holding onto territory and doves prepared to abandon it. But a second set of hitherto prominent issues, the "secular-clerical" spectrum, is fading, and being replaced by socio-economic concerns. In recent years, Knesset elections witnessed first the rise of Shas and then the emergence of Shinui, and the secular-clerical clash was responsible for determining the votes of as many as 30 members of Knesset, or one-quarter of the parliament. Now Shinui, which never succeeded in emerging from the "single issue" mantle and attracting voters on the basis of its economic, security or peace platforms, is in danger of shrinking to a mere handful of MKs, as Kadima replaces it at the political center and Peretz develops an aggressive campaign focusing on poverty and income gaps.

A third emerging trend is an abrupt reversal in the recent decline in the quality of active politicians and members of Knesset. Israel's last Knesset elections in particular, in January 2003, witnessed the successful entry into politics of one or two quasi-criminal elements on the Likud list. There has also been growing corruption in primary elections and even criminal abuse of voting procedures in the Knesset itself, with the Likud and Shas leading the list of corrupt politicians. Currently, close to 10 percent of MKs are under police investigation or have been indicted.

Now, Peretz's selection as Labor leader and Sharon's decision to abandon the Likud (note, paradoxically, that Sharon himself and his MK son, Omri, are implicated in ongoing corruption investigations) have triggered decisions by a number of highly respectable and charismatic public figures to enter politics. These include such personalities as Ben-Gurion University President Avishai Braverman, former GSS (Shabak) head Ami Ayalon, former police general Arie Amit, journalist Sheli Yehimovich, former consul general in New York Alon Pinkas (all to Labor), Interdisciplinary Center President Uriel Reichman and recently-retired GSS head Avi Dichter to Kadima, and Brigadier General (ret.) Rachel Dolev to Meretz. Whatever the political fortunes of these figures, their decision is a welcome breath of fresh air and injection of public spirit to Israeli politics.

Further, disengagement is taking root as a legitimate option concerning the Palestinian issue. This, despite Sharon's protests that he does not intend to carry out a second unilateral pullout and Peretz's insistence that he prefers to negotiate with the Palestinians rather than to withdraw unilaterally. For most voters, it is clear that a vote for Kadima is a vote for disengagement. In this regard, Shimon Peres' dramatic move to Sharon's political camp can only be seen as an endorsement of the option of additional unilateral withdrawals.

One additional issue that could conceivably constitute a new feature of this electoral campaign is the Iranian nuclear threat, highlighted in recent days by the head of the IDF and by Sharon himself. The latter could easily be tempted to take advantage of the assessments that Iran will soon pass the nuclear "point of no return", to present himself as a far more suitable candidate--in terms of qualifications and experience--to deal with Iran than Peretz or any conceivable Likud leader (except perhaps Shaul Mofaz). But highlighting the Iranian threat would violate an unspoken Israeli rule of recent years regarding Iran: that Israel should maintain a low profile and leave the anti-Iran campaign to the US and the EU, in order to lower the profile of Israeli-Iranian friction and prevent talk about Iranian nuclear aggression from becoming a self-fulfilling prediction.

Q. Apropos Shimon Peres, what are the ramifications of his decision to leave the Labor party after nearly 50 years of active membership?

A. The first concerns disengagement, to which Peres appears to be a convert. Since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Peres has always advocated a policy of integration between Israel and the territories that contradicts the idea of disengagement. In this regard, he followed in the footsteps of his close political ally, Moshe Dayan, who opened the green line boundary in 1967 and encouraged the populations to mix, then gravitated to a variety of autonomy schemes based on ongoing economic integration. Over the years, too, Peres has actively advocated a series of federation and confederation ideas that would involve Israel in some loose form of union, primarily economic, with Jordan and a Palestinian entity.

All the integrative aspects of the Oslo agreements of the past 12 years reflect Peres' influence; Yitzhak Rabin, in contrast, consistently viewed the Oslo process as one of "separation" and was the first to envision a fence delineating Israel from the territories. (Indeed, the internal contradiction embedded in the radically different approaches to the Oslo agreements that were invoked in the mid-1990s by Peres and Rabin was one of the factors that contributed to Oslo's failure.) Peres, too, was an early advocate of settlement in the territories, and was instrumental in enabling Gush Emunim to establish its first settlements in the West Bank in 1995-96.

Ariel Sharon's disengagement approach is very much in the Rabin mold of separation that was adopted by Ehud Barak in 1999 ("we're here, they're there"). Thus, when Peres opts to support Sharon rather than the new Labor party leader, Amir Peretz, who advocates a negotiated peace and close economic cooperation with the Palestinians, he is breaking with policies he himself has long advocated. Whether he will have any significant influence on Sharon's approach to these issues after elections remains doubtful. But Peres' move, and his declaration that only Sharon can keep things moving on the Palestinian front, reflect the doubts harbored by a large portion of the left and center regarding the efficacy of peace negotiations with the Palestinians in the near future.

Secondly, Peres is finally leaving electoral politics. He will not be on Sharon's Kadima list, largely because Sharon views him as an electoral liability. True, the instant polls taken after Peres' announcement of his party switch indicated that twice as many voters believed Peres would improve Kadima's chances as those who felt he would hurt the new party. And Sharon offered vague public reassurances in a joint press conference with Peres on Dec. 4 that the latter would play a central role in his next government. Still, Sharon can be counted on to try to keep Peres at arm's length in order to avoid being embarrassed by something Peres says or does and by his "loser" image, and to offer him at most a largely ceremonial position in any coalition he puts together after elections.

So was this simply a more dignified way for Peres to finally leave politics? Some Labor party faithful and social critics see in the remarks made last week by his brother, Gershon (Gigi) Peres, a reflection of the real reason. Gigi, in a fit of mixed ethno-political metaphors, compared Amir Peretz (a Moroccan Jew) and his allies to the Spanish phalangists who, under Franco, invaded Spain from Morocco at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s. While it was none other than Shimon Peres who brought Peretz back into the Labor fold, he clearly did not intend for Peretz to take over the party so quickly, and at his expense. So there is almost certainly an element of sour grapes in Peres' move, and perhaps a grudge against an "outsider" who took over "his" party.

Peres the peacemaker, the idealist, once again in search of a way to serve the cause--this is his own way of portraying his party switch of last week, and this is the way he will be seen on the international scene, where he enjoys a unique status. The less generous assessments, those that reflect Yitzhak Rabin's characterization of Peres back in the late 1970s as an "indefatigable schemer", were captured by Haaretz columnist Daniel Ben Simon on December 1: "those with morals and a conscience. . . have always seen [Peres] as an incorrigible opportunist. . . a power-hungry individual who became addicted to the pleasures of the government. . . . over the last 20 years, Israeli politics has been busy finding employment for Shimon Peres so as to avoid offending him, God forbid. After every defeat, he put on the face of a victim and extorted yet another dignified role."

According to Ben Simon, Peres, rather than being an asset to Kadima, has now "become Ariel Sharon's problem". This could indeed be the case if, in contradistinction to the aforementioned assessment, Peres actually believes he still is an active political actor.