GEORGE ARIDA, Madison.com, Dec 9, 2005
Despite appearances to the contrary, Ariel Sharon is one of the true constants of Israeli politics.
Although he remains uncompromising in his ideology and consistent in his methods, he periodically redefines his political identity to serve his underlying agenda.
This week the mainstream Western media carried characteristically misleading headlines of his latest bold initiative: “Sharon Bolts Likud to Form Centrist Party” and “Israel’s Sharon unleashes political earthquake.”
As absurd as it seems at first to see the word “centrist” to describe Sharon or his new party, on reflection it may be an accurate term after all, given the spectrum of Israeli mainstream politics.
The sad truth is that “mainstream” Israeli politics occupies a narrow space, and Sharon’s new identity as a “centrist” is a reflection of the disturbing state of the Israeli body politic rather than any sign of change in Sharon’s stripes.
The left-to-right spectrum in Israel ranges from a kinder and gentler vision of “separate and unequal” (Labor, Meretz and the mainstream “left”) to a “banish-or-kill-em-all” vision of ethnic and religious superiority disturbingly reminiscent of some of Europe’s and America’s darker moments (elements of Likud, National Union, the National Religious Party, Kach, etc.)
Sharon’s heart is in the latter camp. In a global sense, he sits in a place of prominence among heads of government in terms of his open bigotry, enthusiastic use of overwhelming violence and enforcement of a brutal form of apartheid against an entire society, not to mention his personal record of atrocities.
But he is a master political pragmatist. Nothing demonstrates this better than his removal of 8,000 illegal Jewish settlers from Gaza to consolidate the grip of 250,000 of those same settlers over much more valuable Palestinian West Bank land. His reincarnation as a “centrist” is the next step in breaking the shackles of ideologically-blinded Likud rivals like Benjamin Netanyahu, who still balk at giving up a mole hill to save a mountain.
More importantly, Sharon is taking a pre-emptive swipe at the new leader of the Labor Party, Amir Peretz. Having toppled the fossilized Shimon Peres on a stridently anti-settlement, pro-working class platform, Peretz promises to negotiate peace with Palestinian partners who Sharon has consistently claimed are nowhere to be found. With his roots in Likud’s traditional base — Israel’s “second-class,” non-European Jewish population — Peretz could be a real rival.
It remains to be seen whether Peretz represents something new in Israeli politics. But clearly, Sharon does not. One need only realize that on the day Sharon declared his new party, his government began a mass demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem to use up this year’s demolition budget. For the scores of Arab families now homeless in the cold, it was still politics as usual.
Arida is a co-founder of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.