Israel Takes the Politics Out of Politics

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Ready for Bush: Ariel Sharon

Israelis like to joke that if three of them sit around a table discussing politics, four or five different points of view will emerge. And yet throughout much of their half-century history, Israelis have often treated politics as an unaffordable luxury in the face of external threats, turning at such moments to crisis coalitions uniting parties from opposite poles of the ideological spectrum. Even in tranquil times, the most consistent incubator of Israeli political leaders has been the military — the preeminent institution of national unity and security. This is the backdrop to Wednesday's inauguration of Ariel Sharon's national unity government, comprising not only his own Likud party and a number of smaller right-wing and center-right groups, but also the dovish Labor party he beat in last month's election, and also the country's third-largest party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas.

It may be a measure of the fractiousness of contemporary Israeli politics that Sharon's combination of the three largest parties plus a supporting cast of right- and center-right groups still represents only 70 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Yet Sharon's government looks more stable than any the Jewish state has seen in a decade — and that in itself may be a measure of the sense of national crisis that has seized the country following last year's collapse of the peace process and the onset of the renewed intifada uprising by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite its broad character, the bottom line of Sharon's government is security. The mandate given him in his landslide victory over the hapless Ehud Barak was not to conclude the peace process, but to deal harshly with the Palestinians and restore Israelis' collective sense of security.

The presence in that government of Israel's most acclaimed dove — former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres — is designed to mollify Arab and international concern over Sharon's hawkish reputation. As much as Sharon aides vow to get tough with the Palestinians, they're also careful to emphasize that he wants dialogue. But that dialogue is unlikely to be a continuation of the Oslo peace process: While he's undertaken to abide by formal agreements signed by his predecessors, he's made abundantly clear that he has no intention of picking up negotiations where Barak left them, and that the Palestinians should disregard the offers made at the negotiating table by the previous government. In other words, the idea of a comprehensive and final peace agreement with the Palestinians, which proved so elusive to Barak, has now been shelved.

By making common cause with Sharon, even the leaders of Israel's largest peace party have agreed to take a time-out from the peace process that has defined Israeli-Palestinian relations over the past decade. And while that may leave Yasser Arafat in a state of consternation, it's just fine with most Israelis, who no longer trust the Palestinian leader. But the tactical options facing Sharon's government in dealing with the ongoing intifada are limited. Its ability to raise the level of violence used by its soldiers on the ground is limited by international and regional diplomatic considerations, and even the death of more than 350 Palestinians over the past five months has failed to snuff out the rebellion. An even more pressing concern may be the fate of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which looks set to collapse. Israeli blockades have dramatically impacted on the PA's income, and its political legitimacy is already deeply corroded by rampant cronyism and corruption. But allowing the PA to collapse will create a dangerous power vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza, which many fear will ultimately be filled by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants. And that may present Israel with a problem even greater than its frustrations with Arafat. Mindful of that scenario, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell gently urged the Israelis, during his recent visit, to lift the blockade of Palestinian areas — although any progress on this front tends to be set back with each new bomb attack.

Israelis will be hoping that the government installed on Wednesday will make their lives safer and the future more predictable. Their desire is understandable — even if there are no grounds to suspect Sharon's government is possessed of any magic bullet to resolve his country's existential dilemma.