Israel's Labor Party: Rabin's Way, or Sharon's?

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It's hardly surprising that Israel's Labor Party can't agree on a new leader, because the party of Oslo is no longer sure of what it wants to be. In dealing with the intifada, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believes time and muscle is on Israel's side, and that the only way forward for the Jewish state is to tough it out, for decades if need be, in the belief that the resolve of its enemies will ultimately weaken. But the more dovish Labor party leaders such as Knesset speaker Avram Burg believe Sharon's strategic vision is the more dangerous to Israel's long-term prospects.

The divide stood in stark relief Tuesday, when, in a neck-and-neck primary whose see-sawing lead recalled election-night coverage of Florida last November, Burg appeared to edge out current defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — pending the outcome of a recount, and the efforts of both men's lawyers. At stake: the direction of the party that led the Jewish state into the Oslo Accords but is now the junior partner in a coalition led by a fierce opponent of that peace process.

Sharon likes to joke that the tough-talking Ben-Eliezer is even more hawkish than himself. Burg is the thoughtful dove who, despite supporting strong military action in response to the current intifada, believes that Israel ultimately has no choice but to resume talks with the Palestinians. Those positions, of course, are not incompatible in the short term — Labor's caretaker leader Shimon Peres has, in his capacity as Sharon's foreign minister, been pursuing cease-fire talks with Yasser Arafat even as Ben-Eliezer has been sending tanks into Palestinian-controlled territories. And a strong feeling that they were betrayed by Arafat has led many of party leaders and supporters to back more hawkish solutions, at least in the short term. It's the long-term perspective that has a growing number of Labor supporters worried.

Tactical consensus, strategic difference

Fundamentally, Israel's unity government is built on a basic consensus over forceful responses to Palestinian attacks. But day-to-day tactics do not a strategy make, and Sharon's strategic vision may alarm those Labor politicians who believe Israel's future depends on a comprehensive peace. Sharon considers that belief na´ve and dangerous, and has made no secret of the fact that the deals offered by Ehud Barak are null and void.

Sharon in March told Israelis that they should abandon hopes of a comprehensive peace in the near future, and instead prepare for a decade or more of conflict, punctuated by cease-fires. More recently, he's floated the idea of an "armistice" similar to the one Israel signed with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in 1949 — essentially, a long-term cease-fire designed to contain an unresolved conflict. Those close to him maintain he's not prepared to concede more territory than the 42 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, broken up into a camouflage pattern of discrete cantons surrounded by Israeli soldiers and settlers, that the Palestinians currently control.

'Armistice' terms?

How Sharon imagines any Palestinian leader could accept such "armistice" terms is anybody's guess. After all, the 1949 armistice was simply a case of four neighboring states having to accept the failure of their invasion of the nascent Jewish state. There is simply no conceivable incentive for the Palestinians living under the current terms of occupation to refrain from fighting — Barak, when asked on the campaign trail in 1999 what he would have done if he'd been born Palestinian, answered "I would, at some stage, get involved in one of the terror organizations and join the struggle," adding that later he would try to pursue the same goals through political means offered by the peace process. It's hard to imagine why it might be any different for today's Palestinian youths.

Sharon's answer, though, is to create compelling disincentives for the Palestinians to do anything but cry "uncle" — by systematically piling on military pressure, carefully calibrated to avoid provoking international outrage, in order to exhaust the Palestinians' will to fight.

But those on the dovish flank of the Labor party ought to be well aware that there's little chance of the Palestinians being ground down by force. And the conflict is placing tremendous strain on the pro-Western Arab regimes who have kept the peace in the region for most of the past three decades. An Egyptian commentator warned last week that Sharon's path was jeopardizing "the entire network of political relations upon which the possibility of Israel's peaceful existence in the Middle East depends."

Oslo: Badly handled or bad idea?

Yitzhak Rabin was no sentimental liberal — his commitment to peace was based on a strategic reading of the changing regional and global dynamics that saw Israel's long-term survival as dependent on transforming its political relationship with its Arab neighbors by trading land for peace. Sharon rejected that principle as foolhardy and reckless. The question before the Labor party today, then, is whether Oslo failed because of leadership failures on one or both sides, or whether it had been a bad idea to begin with. In other words, the party of Rabin is now facing a choice between his way and Sharon's.