Skip to: site menu | section menu | main content

Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
Currently viewing: Chalav U'Dvash » Home

Volume 0, Number 0

Going Forward Without Sharon
The Future of the Kadima Movement

By Michael Goldman

 

As this article is being written, Ariel Sharon lies in a severe coma, possibly dying. Even if he emerges alive, his extraordinary mind will be irreparably damaged. It is widely recognized that Sharon will never again take the Prime Minister's seat at a cabinet meeting. Yet the goals and party of Ariel Sharon, though without their founder, are likely to continue to thrive and define Israel and the Middle East.

Sharon's friends and foes alike believe that his Israel is at the end of an era. For Sharonistas, it is the fall of the Israeli Camelot. Charles Krauthammer's plaintive Washington Post column "A Calamity for Israel"a was not quite Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain," but the sentiment was the same. Aluf Benn's column for Haaretz written hours after Sharon's incapacitation, entitled "A Tragic End to Sharon's One-Man Show," predicted that "a change in leadership will turn Israeli politics into a giant riddle, and undoubtedly spark concern around the world."b This concern is not hard to understand. In the past five years, "Arik" Sharon has risen from a pariah to a man indispensable to Israeli politics.

Sharon's personal history reads like the story of the State of Israel. He has fought in every one of Israel's wars: as an idealistic young Palmachnik in the War of Independence; as the general who crossed the Suez Canal and trapped Egypt's Third Army, winning the Yom Kippur War; and as the Defense Minister who ordered the bombing of Iraq's nuclear facilities and the start of the Lebanon War in the 1980s. Along the way, political factions have risen and fallen in his wake—most notably the Likud, which Sharon created in the 1970s, rode to victory in 2001 and 2003, and destroyed in 2005.

On Wednesday, January 4, 2006, the day of the Prime Minister's fateful stroke, a Haaretz poll showed Sharon's new Kadima faction winning forty-two out of 120 Knesset mandates. This landslide, despite a stroke three weeks earlier that created much speculation about his health in the Israeli press. At five feet and seven inches, seventy-seven years, and over three hundred pounds, even this living legend was at a clear health risk. Consciously ignoring this danger, the Israeli people continued to imagine a Sharon as permanent as the land that he served.

Sharon, and only Sharon, meant to the Israeli public a security not experienced in decades and perhaps a chance for true peace. The old "Greater Land of Israel" ideology of Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menahem Begin had brought Israel only an endless occupation with no permanent viable solution offered by the Right. The Far Right had solutions—"involuntary transfer," for one—but none that were politically or morally viable. As for the Left, they cleaved to the opposite extreme, in the name of peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat, and with the Oslo Accords bringing him and thousands of the world's terrorists into the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's doorstep.

After bombs broke the idealistic administration of Peres, after Benjamin Netanyahu was allowed to muddle through for three years shaking Arafat's hand and giving away more land, after Barak offered nearly everything the Palestine Liberation Organization wanted as a state and was rewarded with the Second Intifada, along came Sharon, the "bulldozer," the hero of the extreme Right and of the settler movement.

Sharon tried something new. He did not shake Arafat's hand; Sharon publicly wished he had killed him in the 1982 siege of Beirut. Instead, he resolved to make Arafat irrelevant. Against all the bets of Western intelligentsia, he succeeded. As his archnemesis slowly shriveled up in his Ramallah headquarters, Sharon waged an Israeli counterstrike against terror, Operation Defensive Shield. The casualties began to decline sharply.

The genius of Sharon, as political analyst Yossi Klein HaLevi notes, was to find a third way. Neither indefinite occupation nor peace-at-all-costs negotiations had succeeded, so Sharon's strategy became the securing of a unilateral peace through strength. Sharon designed a plan by which Israel would abandon the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, fencing off the settlements that he planned to annex and pulling back the settlements on the wrong side of the new borders. The Palestinians could then choose anarchy or statehood, but they would no longer be Israel's problem.

In 2005, with terrorist attacks down 90 percent from the year before, and a successful evacuation from Gaza having proven the feasibility of the Sharon plan, a clear new political phenomenon had come to exist in Israel. With the formation of the Kadima party in November 2005, it had a home and a name. Some have called it the emergence of the Israeli political center—but while the voters in middle class republics often seem to prefer moderation in candidates and parties, never has a "centrist" faction truly emerged to dominate a nation. Israelis know this well, with the repeated failure of movements like the Center Party and Shinui to take over Israel's political system. Kadima is something else entirely. It is not a set of policies, but neither is it the personality cult of Ariel Sharon. In Israel, voters are called upon to decide urgent and tangible matters of war and peace. Every Israeli is a general, and Kadima's support is support for a strategy, not a man.

This support is why reports of Kadima's demise are greatly exaggerated. Immediately after Sharon's incapacitation, a new Haaretz poll showed his likely successor, Ehud Olmert, winning forty Knesset seats—only two seats less than Sharon himself in the previous poll two days earlier. Olmert is a career politician without Sharon's extensive military background who has made a similar ideological voyage "leftward." In 1978 he voted against Begin's withdrawal from the Sinai, though today he sees this as an error. As Olmert said in August 2005,

I voted against Menahem Begin, I told him it was a historic mistake, how dangerous it would be, and so on and so on. Now I am sorry he is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of the Sinai.c

Olmert was the first right-wing politician to support disengagement from Gaza. He is often compared to his close friend Rudy Giuliani for his effective ten-year governance as mayor of Jerusalem, from 1993-2003.

Yet Time Magazine Online has not been alone in describing Olmert as "not a particularly popular figure in Israel."d On Saturday, January 7, a New York Times headline read "Olmert steps out of Sharon's shadow, into the fire."e Olmert is sometimes mentioned as having governed corruptly as mayor of Jerusalem, delivering the city into the hands of the alien ultra-Orthodox and allowing them to drive out the young, secular people who should have been the city's future. However, Olmert is a skilled politician and an accomplished speaker, in English as well as in Hebrew. American Arianna Huffington's column in Yediot Ahronot on January 7 described him:

Olmert is a brilliant and enthusiastic speaker, with a sharp sense of humor, [and] while making [a] speech, Olmert did not once need to look at the notes before him.f

If it is charisma and rhetoric the Israeli voter is looking for, though, the hands-down winner would clearly be the silver-tongued and quick-witted Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud, though, has been polled winning a dismal thirteen to seventeen seats over the months of December and January. And the great Sharon himself is famously terse, though he was capable of delivering public addresses quite admirably.

Israel does not seek charisma when it goes to the polls on March 28, neither does it seek economic policy, the defining political issue in most other First World democracies. Economics have rarely decided an Israeli election at the most secure of times, and with existential threats from both within Mandatory Palestine and abroad, it is hardly expected to factor significantly in this election.

There are those who might wish it would. The average Israeli, when pressed, identifies as a moderate socialist. Labor leader Amir Peretz has predicted for years that the first post-Sharon, post-security election in Israel would be between himself and Netanyahu, between socialism and capitalism, a referendum on Netanyahu's "Thatcherite" privatization and budget cuts which have damaged Israel's safety net for poorer citizens.

Netanyahu can counter with the hard economic data that has emerged from his 2003-2005 term as finance minister: "Israel's GDP [has grown at] an astonishing 5.2 percent ... which has come coupled with a 6.6 percent growth in the business product, 3.3 percent growth in per-capita domestic product and a 47 percent drop in the current-account deficit last year, as well as an aggregate 25 percent growth in exports and a 2 percent decline in unemployment during [Netanyahu's] term as treasurer."g

Olmert is a free-marketeer, much closer in ideology to his fellow son of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet what the Israeli voter is likely to take more seriously is Amir Peretz's continuing belief in returning to the Oslo process, and Benjamin Netanyahu's ten-year history of tough talk and then insufficient or inconsistent action­—with Hebron, the Wye Accords, and now the disengagement from Gaza.

In any normalized country—in the election Israel might still have in a decade or so—Netanyahu's personal appeal and successful economic vision would help him win a landslide victory over the hapless socialist Peretz. Israel, though, is a nation at war—a total war on all fronts, with almost all having family members and friends who have been murdered since 2000, and with every citizen in increasing danger from an apocalyptically-minded Iran.

The one man Israel trusted in this election was Sharon. And now the one strategy Israel trusts for the future is the strategy of Olmert and Kadima. The nation will not change horses in midstream, but will stick with the winning ticket of "peace through strength."

Ehud Olmert has advocated a second Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank. He has suggested relinquishing some Arab areas of East Jerusalem, though not the Old City. These concessions are further than Sharon ever went. As godfather of some of the East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods that might have to be relinquished, Olmert may be in the same position as was Sharon when dismantling his settlements. And if the crisis with Iran comes to a head, no one will be better suited to order the necessary response than Kadima's experienced, Iranian-born candidate for Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz.

If Kadima is successful—if it creates a Palestinian State and a peace with the Arabs, securing Israel's right to exist among the nations—it has two possible futures. One is a sudden, violent collapse—like that of the Center Party in 1999, or Shinui in 2006. Then Labor and Likud would return to the center stage. Alternately, Kadima could largely take the place of Labor or Likud, becoming firmly defined as a party of the "Left" or "Right"—likely the latter—and remain a respectable party of government in a new Israel.

For now, Kadima will remain an unstoppable behemoth, a Sharon-less bulldozer in Israeli politics. Israel has tried the endless war of Jabotinsky's "Iron Wall," and the Laborite vision of Peace Now. It is the middle between these extremes, not an absolute "Center" of politics or economics, but a middle ground that Sharon has discovered and turned into a mighty force. Now that Sharon has created hope for Israel and Israelis, he will forever be a giant in the national consciousness, second perhaps only to Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. But no man is indispensable in a democracy. On March 28, Israeli voters will go to the polls to elect Kadima and Olmert to lead their country, by an overwhelming margin. And so the Sharon revolution will be realized, and a new era will begin.



Works Cited

Asa-El, Amotz. "Labor's Day After." Jerusalem Post. 5 Jan. 2006. <http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1136361019020&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull>. Accessed 3 Mar. 2006.

Benhorin, Yitzhak. "Is Olmert Up to the Job?" YNet News.com. 7 Jan. 2006. <http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3196639,00.html>. Accessed 3 Mar. 2006.

Benn, Aluf. "A Tragic End to Sharon's One-Man Show." Haaretz.com. <http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/666405.html>.

Berger, Joseph. "Olmert Steps Out of Sharon's Shadow, Into the Fire." New York Times. 7 Jan. 2006: A7.

Klein, Aaron. "The Man Who Would Succeed Sharon." TIME.com. 6 Jan. 2006. < http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1146541,00.html>. Accessed 6 Mar. 2006.

Krauthammer, Charles. "A Calamity for Israel." Washington Post.com. 6 Jan. 2006. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/05/AR2006010501901.html>. Accessed 3 Mar. 2006.

Wilson, Scott. "Pullout Focuses Israel on Its Future." Washington Post.com. 13 Aug. 2005. < http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/12/AR2005081201546.html>. Accessed 12 Mar. 2006.

© Copyright  Chalav U'Dvash

Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

Chalav U'Dvash has no ideological or political bias. We give our writers the opportunity and freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints within a well-researched and factual framework, and so any bias within Chalav U'Dvash is strictly that of our writers and not the journal itself.

© Copyright 2005, Chalav U'Dvash. All rights reserved.