Can the center hold in Israel without Ariel Sharon? Sharon's newly formed Kadimah ("Forward") Party didn't just occupy the center. It defined a broad consensus. And it was well on its way toward winning an unprecedented third term for Sharon in the March 28 election. Now what?
Kadimah without Sharon looks like a lost cause. Sharon was the party. It was built on confidence in his leadership and on his own personal following. President Bush also had a substantial investment in Sharon's policies, which he endorsed in 2004. Now the Bush administration must determine whether to put its money on a new Kadimah leader, presumably acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or, more likely, to take a hands-off approach until after the election.
In 1996, President Clinton more or less openly endorsed Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. Clinton was a popular figure in Israel, but Peres still lost to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu was, as expected, difficult for the United States to deal with.
Now Netanyahu is once again the Likud Party leader. And he's the likely winner if Kadimah collapses. Would Netanyahu get along any better with Bush than he did with Clinton? Probably not. Unlike Sharon, Netanyahu refuses to endorse Bush's "road map," and its ultimate objective to have "two states living side by side in peace," as Bush puts it. Netanyahu resigned from Sharon's government to protest Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last August, a policy supported by Bush.
In theory, Israeli politics has plenty of room for a centrist alternative. Most Israelis are somewhere between Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party and the dovish policies of the Labor Party under its new leader, Amir Peretz.
Peretz, a trade union leader, pulled off a huge upset by defeating former Labor Prime Minister Peres last fall. Peretz got in on a wave of sentiment that the party needed to pay more attention to domestic issues, such as poverty. But Peretz has never been in government and has no diplomatic experience or security credentials.
The political center in Israel backs Sharon's policy of unilateral disengagement. Disengagement represents a "third way" between two alternatives that seem to have reached a dead end: continuing occupation and the stalemated peace process. Israelis find it impossible to make a deal without a "partner for peace" on the Palestinian side who has the authority to hold up his end of the bargain. Hence the growing consensus that Israel has to act on its own to enforce a separation between Israelis and Palestinians, including a physical fence to separate the two populations.
Sharon endorsed this policy because he recognized a demographic reality: Israel could not be both a Jewish state and a democracy if it had a large and fast-growing Arab population. The Zionist dream of a "Greater Israel"—his dream and the continuing dream of his former party, the Likud, had become impossible.
Can the platform of disengagement carry the day without Sharon? That's not clear. Under Sharon, Kadimah represented both disengagement and security. "Without Sharon, Kadimah becomes the disengagement party, not the security party," a source close to the Israeli government said. Olmert, Sharon's likely successor as leader of Kadimah, is a staunch advocate of disengagement, including a second-stage withdrawal from the West Bank.
Moreover, with mounting chaos in Gaza, growing support for Hamas, and increasing terrorist activity, disengagement has lost some of its appeal for Israeli voters. Certainly a withdrawal from the West Bank, where tens of thousands of militant Jewish settlers live, would be far more traumatic than the Gaza withdrawal.
Center parties have been tried in Israel—most notably in 1999 under the leadership of former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. They have shown a tendency to collapse on Election Day. On the other hand, polls taken after Sharon's stroke show support for Kadimah holding up very well under Olmert's leadership.
A sympathy factor obviously is at work now, as it was in 1996 after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. But Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, waited eight months to hold an election that year. By then, the sympathy factor had worn off, and security concerns got Netanyahu elected by a narrow margin. Olmert may be luckier. The next election is less than three months away.