Feeling the Tremors From Afar

To hard-core Israeli right-wingers, Ariel Sharon was always the guy who didn't know the words to "Shir Betar."

That was the hymn composed by Zionist legend Ze'ev Jabotinsky; it was the anthem for the Betar youth movement that always served as the core of the nationalist camp the Likud Party always claimed to lead. For those who idolized Menachem Begin – Jabotinsky's ideological heir and whom Sharon helped elect as Israel's prime minister – there was always something slightly untrustworthy about the opportunistic "Arik."

Sharon founded the Likud as a coalition of centrist and rightist parties in 1973, of which Begin's Herut Party was the largest partner. It has helped lead Israel for most of the last 28 years since Begin first rode Sharon's creation to victory in 1977.

But what Sharon created, Sharon has now destroyed. After twice being elected prime minister himself on the Likud ticket, Sharon has dumped his own party. Now all those right-wingers – who always suspected his inherent pragmatism and his roots in David Ben-Gurion's Labor movement would lead to something just like the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza – have turned out to be correct.

This development is widely hailed by commentators as the end of the ideological politics that has characterized Israeli politics for generations. The Jewish state has long been a country with powerful left and right wings, and no center. It has been a place where the rich voted for the left, and the poor (and more recent immigrants) voted for the right.

Is all that really over?

Maybe. There's no question that Sharon's new Kadima Party, with its cadre of Sharon loyalists from the Likud and some celebrity guests from the Labor Party (such as longtime Labor leader Shimon Peres and others), has a much better shot at success than previous attempts at centrist politics.

After all, the consensus that developed around Sharon's policies is the product of disillusionment with both left and right.

The left that created the Oslo peace process was wrong about a Palestinian willingness to make peace. The right was wrong to think that the demographic challenge to Israel posed by all those Arabs in the territories could be ignored. So Sharon figures that a party that eschews the messianism of the Peace Now crowd and the settlement movement is a sure winner; current polls seem to back him up.

The Israeli people will have until March to digest what a new Sharon party really means. And they'll also be able to match it up against the aggressive leftism of Amir Peretz, the man who defeated Peres for the leadership of Labor.

Also in the running will be what's left of Likud. Their likely leader is former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spent the last two years doing more good for Israel as its reformist finance minister than he ever did doing anything else.

But while Israelis ponder the choices, we're left wondering what any of this means for American Jews and other friends of Israel on these shores. For instance:

How would a Kadima-led government be viewed by the Bush administration?

They'll love it. Washington has always been uncomfortable with the Likud. Even though some of the neo-conservatives who have been part of the Bush government have ties to that party, the settlement movement and its supporters with the Sharon coalition always gave the United States heartburn.

Some friends of the Israeli right in Congress and elsewhere – such as pro-Zionist Christian conservatives – will be disconcerted by further territorial withdrawals. But these people aren't likely to dump Israel. As long as their Bible tells them that those who bless Israel will be blessed, they'll stay loyal.

How will a realignment affect American supporters of Israel?

The Jewish left, which has been largely demoralized by the demise of Oslo and the last two Likud landslides, is anticipating a return to favor.

Liberal American Jews have always been made uncomfortable by the Likud and its nationalist rhetoric. If, as some hope, this is a return to the pre-1977 era of marginalization of the right, then many will rejoice.

The only problem with that is that it's precisely the Jewish right that has been the most enthusiastic and hard-working element of the pro-Israel community in recent years.

While attempting to be more Zionist than the government of Israel is never a viable policy for any American, we should expect more anti-Sharon protests from the right, especially if the new government attempts, as is anticipated, to abandon parts of the West Bank.

But as long as Sharon commands a majority of the Knesset, he can count on the support of most American Jews.

Will the new Israeli politics be anymore favorable to religious pluralism than the old?

Most American Jews have long chafed at the lack of recognition for their non-Orthodox religious movements and their rabbis. Some hope that if Kadima and Labor can win enough seats to rule without help from the religious parties, this will mean progress on the pluralism front.

But not likely. Though little noticed here, the last Sharon government was largely bereft of Orthodox influence, but it did nothing for the Reform and Conservative movements. The new Sharon party will also likely eviscerate Shinui, the anti-religious secular party and that will mean less pressure on that issue.

And if Sharon falters – and he and Peretz are unable to win enough seats to govern or if post-election squabbles sink their coalition – the prime minister won't hesitate to deal with the Orthodox parties.

But whether Sharon needs the Orthodox or not, there aren't going to be any more votes for religious pluralism in the new Israeli politics than in the old.

How will Sharon's move affect the Israeli economy?

Sharon probably figures that if he can create progress toward peace, then prosperity is inevitable. But he, like a lot of people in the Likud, never really understood or cared about economics. It was Netanyahu, after all, who correctly termed it more of a "Peronist" party than a grouping of free-enterprise advocates.

The odds are, Sharon will hope to hand Israel's economy over to Peretz, and gamble that the left won't be able to handcuff him on security matters. Peretz will quickly reverse much of the progress made by Netanyahu. And if Israel's economy slides back to its old Labor-inspired East German model, Sharon figures that that will eventually be somebody else's problem to fix.

All of this will be bad news for investors in a revitalized Israeli high-tech economy that hoped to see an end to the era of draconian taxes and regulation.

In sum, a Sharon-centric future for Israel will bring both good and bad for Israel and its American friends. But beware of easy assumptions about the future. The law of unintended consequences, as well as the threat of Palestinian terrorism, still hovers over Israeli politics. Reading the future should be as hard as coaxing a chorus of the Betar hymn out of Sharon.

Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected]



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