The Likud Party in Israel is in crisis. While presuming to be a “broad tent” for a gamut of political opinion, it increasingly is split along the tectonic lines defined by the Gaza disengagement plan of Ariel Sharon.
While there are many other divisions within the Likud, including over personalities (the Sharon camp vs. the Netanyahu camp vs. the Olmert camp), economic policy (market oriented vs. the old-style socialists and central planners), coalition strategies (those favoring national unity coalitions with the Left vs. those opposed), and military-security issues (such as the “security wall”), nothing has been so polarizing as Sharon’s Gaza disengagement.
The internal divisions became most glaring when the Likud held its party referendum on the Sharon plan several months ago and the plan was defeated by a margin of about three to two. This was widely regarded as a sort of no-confidence vote in Sharon himself. Since then the Likud’s “left wing” (if it may be called that) – led by such people as Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Gideon Ezra, and Meir Sheetrit – has followed Sharon’s lead or even gone beyond it in its embrace of certain components of the Oslo approach, specifically unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
This wing of the Likud could be labeled the camp of “Oslo Lite” because it reluctantly embraces most of the principles of the Oslo peace process introduced by the Israeli Labor Party. The Sharon disengagement plan for Gaza, which they support, is essentially the Mitzna plan, comprising the main plank of the Labor Party’s election platform in the last election. They are opposed by the Likud “Right,” at the moment led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which opposes unilateral disengagement in Gaza or at least insists that the plan be submitted to a national referendum before implementation.
Despite calling out his heaviest political artillery, Sharon has been unable to impose his will on the party’s “Right,” which – if the referendum last spring tells us anything – may well have the support of most of the party rank and file. The party’s internal divisions have taken on a new ferocity in recent weeks, and the press and others are asking whether the crisis might split the party down the middle and lead to the emergence of a separate Likud-Left and Likud-Right.
Within the party, all talk of such a split is generally dismissed as something of a disaster scenario by those insisting that any such split be prevented at all costs. But should it be? Would Israeli voters and Israel as a whole not be better off should such a split take place?
The Likud has been attempting to be all things to all people. Time and again the Likud has run as the anti-Oslo party, only to immediately jettison its platform after the election and proceed to implement the policies of Labor.
The pattern certainly goes back to the Netanyahu victory of 1996, but in some ways even as far as the Begin election in 1977. Having run on a policy of retaining all “occupied territories” and converting Israeli economic socialism into free-market capitalism, Begin quickly abandoned all of the Sinai Peninsula while preserving the monopoly socialism and central control of the economy. The Camp David accords signed by Begin included a seemingly innocent pledge to grant the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza “limited autonomy,” which in retrospect set the precedent for the now familiar universal demands for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Under Yitzhak Shamir, the government dug in its heels over some security matters and played tougher with the Palestinians, but at the same time Shamir’s ministers embraced dirigiste socialism even more fiercely, with Minister of Agriculture and Housing Ariel Sharon serving as the most passionate advocate of central planning. Shamir also sat with the Labor Party in a series of national unity coalitions.
Netanyahu essentially was elected in 1996 to halt the Oslo “peace process.” But it became quickly evident that he would continue that process; indeed, he accelerated it via the Wye capitulations, agreeing to measures that even Shimon Peres had refused to implement. And despite his free-market campaign rhetoric, Netanyahu as prime minister did almost nothing to reform the economy.
After the fiasco of the government of Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon entered office in 2001, once again as the Likud’s reigning anti-Oslo crusader. And once again a Likud leader elected to stop Oslo abandoned his campaign platform and continued the Oslo process.
Within months Sharon was reiterating his personal commitment to Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu, consigned by Sharon to the Ministry of Finance, perhaps because of its infamous ability to break promising careers, has been doing a remarkably good job there in initiating many of the same economic structural reforms he had refused to promote as prime minister. Netanyahu also morphed into the leader of the hawkish internal opposition to Sharon within Likud. In one of the Likud government’s most cynical moments, Sharon conditioned support for the economic structural reforms being pushed by Netanyahu on the latter’s capitulation and endorsement of the Gaza disengagement plan.
The main argument by Likud loyalists against any split of the Likud into two parties is that such a cleavage could allow Labor to return to office. But if Likud is going to implement Labor ideas anyway, what difference does it make whether Likud is split and in opposition or not?
The main reason for splitting the Likud is to at last create true political pluralism and democracy in Israel. Until 1977 Israel was essentially a one-party state, with the Labor Party (cum MAPAI) in firm control of the country. In 1977 Likud had emerged as a plausible alternative for voters, but by 1996 it was clear that it was an “alternative” only in the sense of the roster of names and personnel running for office, not in terms of the policies being pursued.
Both Labor and Likud endorse a two-state solution with a Palestinian state arising in virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza and with Israel being forced back to borders not significantly different form those of 1949. Both now endorse unilateral disengagement in Gaza, which will clearly serve as precedent for the West Bank no matter how many times Sharon denies it. And both endorse the expulsion of thousands of Jews from their homes to accommodate Palestinian ambitions.
Splitting Likud would offer Israeli voters a real choice. The Likud-Left would run openly as the “Other Labor Party,” endorsing continuation of Oslo and generally seeking accords with the PLO by way of Israeli concessions and goodwill measures. The Likud-Right would oppose all negotiations with the PLO, would run on a “Peace through Victory” platform, would vehemently oppose Palestinian statehood, and would increase settlement construction. The Likud Left could promote dirigiste state planning, while the Likud Right would promote free market capitalism.
Israeli voters would have a clear choice, and Israeli elections would at last serve as clear legitimizing procedures. Ironically, the total votes awarded to one of the emerging Likud halves could well exceed those of the two Siamese halves joined at the hip in the current Likud party.
The Likud that represents everything and nothing at the same time – that is, the Likud of the Sharon-led coalition – has driven away large numbers of voters. A Likud half clearly representing something substantially different from Labor might discover that it has enormous electoral appeal.
Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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