Preliminary results from Israel's March 28 elections indicate that a Kadima-Labor alliance captured 50 seats between them in the Knesset, enough to anchor a center-left coalition capable of ruling effectively.
Israel's electoral system has ensured that the country never has a pure majority government; proportional representation with a mere 2 percent floor encourages a proliferation of parties and makes deal-making (and by extension deal-breaking) a regular feature of Israeli governance.
A Kadima-Labor alliance, however, likely will be able to secure support from one or two other like-minded parties in order to break this trend. And in giving the alliance that opportunity, Israeli voters appear to have elected the most authoritative government the country has seen since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
The Memory of 1973
While it is true that, due to peculiarities of its electoral system, Israel has never had a pure majority government, the country was more or less dominated politically by the Labor Party until after the 1973 war. That is not to say that government policy was always sound or forward-looking, just that it was broadly decisive as only a government with parliamentary seats to spare can be.
The war had a profound impact on the Israeli psyche, and brought to an end the period of political "stability" that had endured since the founding of the state in 1948. A surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, something that up to that point had been thought to be an impossible feat, was fought off only by heavy and near-panic fighting. Whereas previous wars -- the war for independence in 1948, the Suez crisis in 1956, the Six Days War in 1967 -- had been fought largely on Israel's terms, the 1973 war nearly succeeded in overwhelming the state's defenses. The result was evisceration of public confidence in the government and, by extension, the Labor Party.
Out of the ensuing combination of disaffection, instability and fear was born the Likud Party.
Ultimately, Likud's power has stemmed from a belief not only that Arabs are not to be trusted, but also that Israel's national security hinged on its ability to control a buffer zone of Arab territory. From this belief came policies such as the encouragement of Jewish settlements throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. For the Israeli left, land was just another issue up for negotiation; the real issues were domestic, social and secular (an attitude that obviously contributed to the left's fall from grace after 1973). For the right, land was something that could never be abandoned -- whether for religious reasons or others.
The emergence of Likud certainly redefined the Israeli political scene, but the party was never truly able to dominate the landscape as Labor had. Likud never formed a stable majority government, even in coalition; at every turn, it ruled either in a "national unity" coalition with Labor, or at the head of a smattering of smaller parties that tended to be strongly religious or right-wing, or both. The result, since Likud rose to power in 1977, has been a succession of weak Israeli governments plagued by infighting -- particularly over policies that concerned Israel's borders, both formal and de facto.
In other words, Israel has experienced a generation of unstable governments that for the most part were unable to negotiate coherently with anyone on anything. For all practical purposes, the Jewish state was in the same position at the beginning of 2001 that it had been since Likud rose to prominence.
And then came Ariel Sharon.
From Peace to Divorce
Unlike other leaders of the Israel right, Sharon was neither bureaucrat nor businessman, nor was he an academic or armchair strategist. He was a soldier who knew precisely what it meant to order an attack, pull a trigger and plan an invasion.
When he became prime minister in 2001, Sharon held views very similar to those of most Likud leaders. However, a combination of frustration with the overall peace process, cold demographic facts -- with the Palestinian territories included, Jews were about to become a minority in Israel -- and the public malaise that derived from living in constant conflict with Palestinians led him to develop a new strategy.
In Sharon's mind, Israel -- as wedded to the Palestinian territories -- had become an indefensible entity, and no number of armored bulldozers or IDF raids would change that. He saw the need not to bring peace to the territorial marriage between Israel and Palestine, but to bring about divorce instead.
Sharon's policy marked a dramatic departure from those of both the peaceniks and the land-grabbers.
Sharon ultimately believed that Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian National Authority officials could not be trusted. This had less to do with any beliefs about their personal sincerity when making promises than with a lack of faith that Palestinian officials could deliver on said promises. As such, from Sharon's point of view, talking with the Palestinians at all was a sheer waste of time.
While that viewpoint was anathema to the thinking of the peace crowd, other aspects of his assessment were viewed as sacrilege by the land crowd. For Sharon, it was not the ideal of security that was paramount, but rather the exercise of security that mattered. When Sharon looked at a map of Israel he saw, not land that could never under any circumstance be abandoned, but rather security commitments that were irreconcilable with lines of defense. He saw Israeli settlements that had to be removed, forcibly if necessary. He saw the need to redraw Israel's borders in a way that would guarantee security -- and in reality, that meant giving up whatever territory was difficult to hold.
In practice, that would mean, among other things, blocking all Palestinian access to Israel proper, a decision with very real economic implications. It would mean annexing sections of the settlements in the territories that served Israel's strategic purposes, while evacuating those that did not -- with the end goal of a more consolidated Jewish entity. It would mean withdrawing security forces from the remaining Palestinian territories and refixing Israel's official borders to reflect a new reality that would not be negotiated, but imposed. Within this manufactured reality, Sharon would alter the very geography of the West Bank; he sought to sequester the Palestinians in a series of disconnected enclaves, build hermetically sealed walls around them, and quite simply leave them to rot.
Thus it was that when Sharon rose to power, the nature of the debate over Israel's borders changed. Fissures began forming among the Israeli right. Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies could accuse Labor leaders of being soft on the Arabs and of being willing to blithely and treasonously sign away Israel's security. But they could never hurl such accusations at Sharon, whose plan has at times been referred to as a form of cultural genocide.
The change in the border debate changed Israel, in several ways.
First, Sharon's rise fractured the Israeli right and slowly disemboweled Likud as a major political force.
Second, the stream of supporters of the Israeli right who felt as Sharon did -- or came to support his policy -- followed him into forming a new political force: The Kadima party, which was dedicated to achieving, at long last, a solution of sorts to the border problem.
Third, the combination of Kadima's practical stance and Labor's flexible stance on land-for-peace means that on the issue of the day -- Israel's final borders -- the country now has for all practical purposes a single party that seems poised to achieve majority control of the Knesset. For the first time since before the 1973 war, the prospect of a stable majority government for Israel is now in sight.
Finally, while it was Sharon's political emergence that set this chain of events into motion, the process is now self-sustaining and will not be fundamentally endangered by his incapacitation. Between the rifts on the Israeli right, the formation of Kadima and the pending emergence of a new Kadima/Labor government, Israel is a step away from having a government that might not be subject to frequent no-confidence votes it cannot ignore. Sharon probably wanted to see his plans through to fruition, but his dominance in the past had sufficient impact on Israel's political system that his absence in the future will not be a significant impediment.
Unlike the Oslo Accords, the current peace plan has a chance of working because it does not depend on political promises made by governments or the dominance of certain towering personalities, but rather because it meshes with the geographic realities in place on the ground. Those realities have been ignored by every other agreement to date. Kadima's goal is to complete the divorce by the end of 2010, just before the next government's term ends. That goal and that timeframe are, uniquely among Middle Eastern "peace plans," achievable.
The Flip Side
The Israelis were not the only people who were fundamentally changed by the outcome of the 1973 war. So were the Palestinians. Before the Yom Kippur War, the Palestinian belief was that sooner or later the Arab states would succeed in destroying Israel, and they would then be able to leave their refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank and return "home." The war of 1973 shattered that dream.
In 1974, then, the Palestinians began to take matters into their own hands. In the years that followed, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) adopted terrorism as a tool. The abandonment of that policy, at the close of the Reagan administration, helped to launch the Oslo peace process, but it also heralded the slow descent of Arafat's PLO/Fatah faction into corruption, nepotism and, ultimately, irrelevance. With the official Palestinian leadership increasingly incapable of commanding the respect of its constituents, Hamas slowly gathered strength as a social, political and military force -- a process that culminated with its election victory earlier this year.
Now, just as the new Kadima/Labor coalition appears poised to command a confident centrist majority in the Knesset, Hamas also commands a confident majority in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
What is essential is the difference between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah consisted of a corrupt old guard that was unable to impose its will upon the Palestinian population in general, and upon the Palestinian militants in particular. When Fatah promised that suicide attacks against Israelis would stop, there were only stern bulletins and more attacks. But Hamas directly controls most of those militants that Fatah could not control. When Hamas promises that attacks will stop, they stop.
Which brings us back to Kadima and Sharon's successor, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Like Sharon, Olmert has publicly noted the weakness of the Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas, directly referring to the Palestinian government as a failure. More important, he has noted that Hamas now calls the shots in the PNA. The sense of Arafat's nomadism is not there; Olmert recognizes that Hamas is the powerbroker that three successive Israeli governments vainly sought out as a negotiating partner, and that -- now in power -- it has no intention of going anywhere.
Unlike past Israeli governments, a Kadima/Labor government could be expected to speak with authority and consistency. Unlike past Palestinian representatives, Hamas can both negotiate in good faith and deliver on what it promises. (There are certainly reasons to distrust Hamas, but they are an entirely different set of reasons.) And there are signs that talks -- real talks -- are possible. Though still reflexively shouting "Death to Israel" between sound bites, Hamas has raised the possibility of speaking with the Israelis on the issue of establishing a "just peace."
But what is truly promising about the direction the current process is that talks are not even necessary.
Kadima's plan is to impose a settlement that includes withdrawing Israeli forces from most of the West Bank. Hamas' plan is to get the Israelis out of the West Bank. While it is true that the two differ on the endgame -- Kadima sees withdrawal and border imposition as the end of the issue, whereas Hamas sees it as just the beginning -- the process we anticipate over the next four years will have the two actors, for the first time, reading from the same script. Sharon's wall, and all it represents, will be an issue for another day.
It appears the Israelis and the Palestinians will have peace in our time ... for four years.
At that point, we will find out just how airtight Sharon's wall really is.