Israel in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Absence

Posted: Feb 13, 2006 4:14 PM

Israel without Ariel Sharon seemed unthinkable until last week when the 77-year-old Prime Minister suffered a massive stroke. Now Israelis are trying to come to grips with their loss. Sharon has been involved in every military campaign since the founding of the Israeli State in 1948. He also involved himself in politics from the very beginning.

While highly controversial, and either loved or hated by the voters in Israel, he is the one political figure who was able to form a consensus in the country regarding the Palestinians. Basically he decided that previous agreements have not worked. So the only way for Israel to survive was unilaterally to withdraw from Gaza and some of the West Bank. He then erected the controversial fence which separated Israel and what was supposed to become the Palestinian State.

Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza there has been utter chaos in that territory. To demonstrate what the Israelis have to deal with, some Palestinians suggested that Sharon’s massive stroke was “a gift from God.” Children handed out candy to schoolmates in celebration of Sharon’s stroke.

Of course, Palestinians weren’t alone in that point of view. Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson, former Republican Presidential candidate and host of the 700 Club TV program on the ABC Family Channel, said that God was responsible for Sharon’s stroke because Sharon had divided His land. “God says this is mine,” Robertson said. Sharon, Robertson said, “was dividing my land “ and he went on to say “I would say woe to any Prime Minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the United Nations or the United States of America.” Robertson cited the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a Labor Prime Minister who also wanted to achieve peace by giving land to the Palestinians.

While Abe Foxman and his Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups were outraged by Robertson’s stand, he was reflecting the views of many who take the Bible literally and who thus believe that the Israel in the New Testament refers to the actual Republic of Israel. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believe that the Israel of the New Testament refers to the Christian Church. That difference in Biblical interpretation has caused Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to be among Israel’s strongest supporters in the United States. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox have approached the question of Israel in geo- political terms and to the extent they have been supportive it is because of that consideration rather than because of an alleged Biblical imperative.

Meanwhile the question remains who will lead the State of Israel after Sharon. Sharon had been a founder of the right-wing Likud Party. Opposition to his policies toward the Palestinians was most vocal in the right-wing of Likud and by some of the Religious parties who have constituted Sharon’s majority in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. A short time ago Sharon, known his whole life as a risk-taker, pulled out of Likud and formed the Kadima Party. Kadima means forward in Hebrew. Labor’s former Prime Minister Shimon Peres also pulled out of Labor and joined Sharon. Polls have indicated that Kadima would win twice as many seats in the Knesset as Labor and three times the number of seats as Likud. Even a poll, lacking in decency, taken while Sharon lay unconscious in the hospital, showed that Kadima still would win overwhelmingly, getting only two seats less than when Sharon first founded the party.

It is unclear who will end up the leader of Kadima. Ehud Olmert, Acting Prime Minister and former Mayor of Jerusalem, is temporarily the party leader. He well may become the new Prime Minister if things don’t change before new elections, currently scheduled for March 16th. Also in contention will be Amir Peretz, the new leader of the Labor Party, who only recently had ousted Peres, who had been either Prime Minister or opposition leader for many years. Also running will be Benjamin Netanyahu, another former Prime Minster. Netanyahu represents the right-wing of Likud and was highly critical of Sharon when he announced his new policies regarding Gaza and the West Bank.

As long as Sharon remained in Likud and the leadership of Likud would be determined by a primary election between Sharon and Netanyahu, Netanyahu was a viable, brilliant politician with a promising future. It remains to be seen now if support for Kadima will hold up. If it does then Netanyahu could come in third among the major parties. He would end up at the bottom of Israeli politics rather than at the top.

It could be that elections might be postponed. The Knesset would have to agree to such a proposal. Since Sharon took many of Likud’s Ministers and members with him when he left to form Kadima it is not clear that Parliament would postpone elections because while Kadima is in the lead it would be to its advantage to have elections as soon as possible. It is not clear if the strong support for Kadima is an emotional reaction of sympathy for Sharon or if the public really now backs a Centrist Government. Labor and Likud have not been unlike the Democrats and Republicans in the United States. They quarrel and bicker and hurl charges at one another. Some observers believe that the Israeli public is sick of it all and hopes Kadima would concentrate on governing.

Israel having a parliamentary system makes it easy to form a new political party. Sharon started Kadima with little notice and without hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. In the United States the two political parties have promoted enactment of legislation which strengthens them so much so that it is now next to impossible to form a new party.

What all of this means to the United States is not clear at this point. President Bush had developed a close relationship with Sharon. Bush is considered by some Jewish Americans to be the best friend in the Presidency Israel has had. Presumably if Kadima does win, and since its policies would be reflective of Sharon’s views, Washington would get along quite well with the new Prime Minister. Although since so much of these relationships depend upon chemistry, there is no guarantee that Ohmert or his possible replacement would get along with Bush.

Should Kadima collapse now that Sharon won’t be leading it, and should it prove incapable in the eyes of Israeli voters to be capable of governing, the most likely beneficiary would be Netanyahu. That would cause Washington heartburn. Washington didn’t like him and clearly tried to undermine him when he was Prime Minister. Inasmuch as he has repudiated the positions upon which Israel and the United States have built their relationship since the beginning of the Bush Presidency the election of Netanyahu would greatly complicate relations between Washington and Tel Aviv. That would cheer more right-of-center Jews in the United States as well as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, other evangelical leaders and their followers. Whatever else can be said, Israel minus Sharon is a brand new Israel. Where exactly that will take us no one is absolutely sure.