Friday, January 06, 2006

Kadimah to where?

We live in interesting times. This is a fascinating moment in Israel's history and politics; the point in time where the usual rule of two Jews, three opinions is shattered, because nobody knows what to think. People do not dare speculate on what comes next.

The only certainty is the sight of Palestinians handing out sweets on the streets of Gaza and celebrating the pain of the Jews, blithely ignoring the irony that without Sharon they would be doing so under the watchful eye of IDF soldiers.

A likelihood is that Sharon's role in politics is over. We can only now hope that he recovers sufficiently to enjoy living out his days on a slightly more careful diet on his Negev ranch. In the meantime, there will be a political vacuum to fill. Ehud Olmert is already rattling around in that space, and there are few characters with the credibility and clout to do much better. With Labour heading left under Peretz and Likud heading right under Netanyahu, Kadimah ("Forward") already needed to decide exactly which direction that was in, and it needs a new visionary to make that move now that Sharon is removed from the scene.

The people need a leader with a vision. All the opinion polls show that the standard retrenchments to old battle positions on the flanks of politics have alienated most of the electorate. Sharon had yet to explain his vision but his instinct in forming a centrist party with a blend of old warhorses like Peres and technocrats like Olmert and Livni was correct.

Without the leadership figure Kadimah needs, one suspects that the real winners here will be Likud or Shinui, and some of the smaller parties. As the imprint of Sharon's personality fades, so might Kadimah.

This might be the shot in the arm required for the fading Shinui party, who sit somewhere between Kadimah and Likud, and under Tommy Lapid's smart leadership are certainly cunning enough to steal into that centre-right ground if it is left available by Netanyahu sticking firmly to the right.

Alternatively Netanyahu, being the shrewd and somewhat amoral politico he is, can pick up the centre-right vote by adopting most elements of Sharon's policy on the Palestinians, combined with his widely acclaimed business-friendly approach that has started to yield rewards for the Israeli economy. If he fails to do so, some of the harder-right voters could look towards Yisrael Beiteinu and other meshuggenes.

The same is true of the left - Labour under Peretz can move closer to the centre, opening up the hard-left vote for Meretz and other staunch socialists bent on destroying the market economy and making the IDF's job impossible, or he can move further left and pick up the ex-Kadimah vote, especially if the ex-Likud Olmert wing is clearly leading it rather than the more doveish ex-Labour Peres wing.

There is one more possibility, which has yet to be talked about much in Israel; that old man Peres will take over the leadership of Kadimah. At the moment, he is acting as the statesmanlike figure bringing in the centre-left vote and adding credibility and nuance to Sharon's more rumbustuous approach, whilst staying somewhat out of the limelight. He will also be wary of standing in an eleventh election at the age of 82, having lost the previous ten and seen the damage done to Sharon's health.

But in many ways, it would be foolish to write him off, or to consider - as many on the right and in the anti-Israel camp do - that he would be a soft touch. Peres has flexed his muscles before and borne the consequences for doing so (Grapes of Wrath for example), and he wears the badge of honour of Chomsky's accusation that he is a mass-murderer and war criminal. Plus he has shaken hands with important world leaders including Clinton and me (see posting below). At his age, he is like Sharon in that he is battle-hardened and willing to make radical gestures to achieve Israel's goals, like Rabin in that he is not afraid of being unpopular even if his personal safety is jeopardised, and crucially, like Barak and Netanyahu, carries the memory of all that passed with Arafat's lies and violence.

All this puts him at a point on the political spectrum that prioritises security and stability over the falsehood of peace with an implacable enemy. However, he carries the stigma of being Shimon Peres, perennial runner-up. It is a shame that Barak's political career peaked so early, as he may now have the maturity and courage to hold the post with more certainty, as well as having developed a keen instinct for large and successful business ventures that provides hope for some sound domestic financial policy.

The key to Kadimah carrying the next election will lie in their ability to assemble a team with more vision, panache and dynamism than the current group of adherents to Sharon's personality cult. Whoever ends up in charge may also end up leading a government that has to confront Iran militarily, as the shrinking violets in the Western world tut-tut and do nothing despite the very real threat to them too - much easier to let the Zionists take the fall.

No wonder there are so few hats to throw into the ring.

No comments: