Can the Center Hold?


The news that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to bolt from the Likud Party to establish his own "National Responsibility" slate is an earthquake in Israeli politics.

For many American Jews who have long deplored the intense polarization of Israeli politics and the impact that this divide has had on American Jewry, the prospect of a centrist triumph is good news. If successful, the prime minister's move could end the perennial struggle between left and right that has characterized Israeli politics for generations.

Sharon's centrist platform is based on the support he has received for his policy of being tough against terrorists, while showing a willingness to make withdrawals to preserve Israel's Jewish majority. This pragmatic approach eschews both the messianism of the left's "New Middle East" fantasies and the right's belief that no territory or settlement can be conceded.

But while the majority back Sharon's middle course, both left and right will not disappear. A revived and more left-leaning Labor Party led by Amir Peretz hopes to win on its own. And those Likudniks that don't back Sharon, in coalition with various religious and rightist factions, still have a considerable following.

Looming above all of this is the wild card of Israeli politics: What will the Arabs do? If Palestinian terror factions step up the violence (and this week's incursion by Hezbollah is evidence of the potential for mischief) that might strengthen Sharon and make a campaign on domestic issues, as Peretz wishes, less likely.

But even if his party finishes first in the expected March vote, Sharon will not have an easy time putting together a centrist government. His new coalition might turn out to be just as dependent on small religious parties or other marginal factions.

With so many variables still undetermined, the thesis that Sharon's gambit will mean Israeli politics is about to undergo a fundamental change remains an open question.


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