‘The iron logic of Israel's political arithmetic, coupled with the challenges ahead, points to a coalition between Likud and Kadima’
Israel’s general election on February 10 could have been a new beginning. By 2006, the last time Israelis went to the polls, voters had grown tired of the two visions that for decades vied for dominance in Israel and the parties that embodied them. The Peace Now vision lay moribund, since the intifada had broken the Oslo illusion, and survived only thanks to often unwelcome and unwise interference from abroad. The Greater Israel vision had become a pipedream in the face of the unbearable price of keeping millions of unwilling Palestinians under Israeli rule. Before long, Israelis understood, an international community with little patience for and understanding of Jewish rights would force Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders and face civil war, or keep the post-1967 lines and become a Jewish minority in an Arab-dominated state.
This emerging political paradigm was not about making peace with old enemies. It was about seeking an ideal point of equilibrium that could help Israel redeploy to defensible boundaries ahead of a long war of attrition with the Palestinians, while ensuring that this new line would enjoy broad domestic support. Israelis were prepared to make “painful concessions”. But after five years of Palestinian terror, they could not be led to believe that their enemies were prepared to recognise, once and for all, Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign Jewish state. Having grasped that this tectonic shift had occurred in Israeli public opinion, Ariel Sharon left Likud and launched his Kadima party in 2005. For three long years he had tried to persuade Likud that a journey to the centre was necessary if the party wished to survive. Likud’s victory in 2003 – with 40 seats, it humbled the Left – had been thanks to Sharon and his newly invented image of a centrist statesman. Likud thought otherwise: it felt that relinquishing Jewish rights in exchange for nothing concrete would only reward violence and embolden its advocates.
Sharon’s new political gamble, at 77, signalled a new era for Israeli politics and a chance for the public to turn the tables both on Likud and Labour. With a charismatic leader at its helm – a farmer-warrior, a visionary and a man who embodied, for better or worse, the Zionist century of the Jewish people – Kadima offered a new political chapter in Israel’s history. It would lead the country into the uncharted waters of the Islamist decade under the guidance of a seasoned helmsman, who could be either ruthless and prudent, but knew the right time for both.
But history, politics and biology rarely intersect. At ten minutes to midnight, Sharon exited from history, leaving a party whose very raison d’être he was without its greatest asset and depriving Israel of the last gift the founding generation could offer – a vision and a hope where no vision was left and no hope had survived.
Now Kadima, a political project in its infancy, had to follow in Sharon’s footsteps without knowing what he would have done, with Hamas in power and the Iranian threat on Israel’s northern doorstep. Perhaps even Sharon did not know what demons he had unleashed by abandoning Gaza to Hamas.
We shall never know. What we know is that it was left to his unlikely heir apparent, Ehud Olmert, to show Israelis that Kadima’s middle path between Oslo and Greater Israel, eternal war and vacuous peace, was the change Israelis had been waiting for. Since then, unilateralism – Kadima’s trademark – has begotten two inconclusive wars, in Lebanon and Gaza, while exposing Israel to murderous and terrifyingly random rockets, courtesy of Iran and its Hamas and Hizbollah proxies. With Oslo killed off by terrorism, Greater Israel overrun by demography, unilateralism devastated by rockets and Iran’s nuclear threat looming, there were few new options on offer and little difference, aside from personality, between the frontrunners. No wonder then that the election resulted in a confused and chequered landscape of 12 parties and no clear mandate. With 28 seats, Tzipi Livni can hardly claim a blank cheque. She stemmed the Likud tide and her party survived, despite its manifest failure in government during the last three years. But she did not gain enough seats to lead alone. Her rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, saw his huge opinion poll lead evaporate, yet he more than doubled his party’s strength from its abysmal performance in 2006.
The iron logic of Israeli political arithmetic, coupled with the challenges ahead, points to a coalition of Likud and Kadima. Most Israelis have favoured a unity government since the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000. Neither Livni nor Netanyahu may wish for each other’s embrace. Neither leader commands enough strength in the newly elected Knesset to be the real boss of a joint project. It won’t be easy. But Israel’s coalitions have never been both broad and stable, unless their policy is no policy at all. And the political distance between them is not so great; hence there is no excuse for mutual exclusion. This need not be Livni’s – or Netanyahu’s – fate. Unity has a redeeming quality in times of crisis. With Iran just over the horizon, and the great battle of our times looming in the region, Israelis can ill afford the consequences of division.