Behind Sharon’s pragmatism

The Israeli leader's resignation from his own Likud party shows up the superficiality of contemporary Israeli politics.

Nicholas Frayn

Topics Politics

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It’s a little odd to see the UK Guardian describe the erstwhile bogeyman of the liberal left – Israeli leader Ariel Sharon – as a pragmatist (1). This, after all, is the man who led the bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which culminated in his castigation for allowing the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian militias. Subsequently, Sharon is widely considered to have sparked the brutal Al-Aqsa intifada with his ill-fated 2000 visit to the Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. More recently still, he was seen in advanced army outposts during the infamous Israeli Defence Force raid on the West Bank town of Jenin, which flattened much of the town centre and left 50 people dead (2).

But no doubt the Guardian is right. In his defection from Likud, the party which he helped found in 1973, Sharon seems to have gone from ideologue villain to upstanding partner in the peace process. With August’s Gaza withdrawal he had already shown that he was willing to ignore Israel’s right wing. Now he has ditched them altogether as he plans to follow the US-designed ‘road map’ for further negotiations with the Palestinians. Far from being a characteristic of Sharon as an individual, however, his current ducking and weaving simply reveals the fluidity and superficiality of contemporary Israeli politics.

Israeli politics often seems irredeemably unstable, with one cobbled-together coalition following another at an alarming rate. It is worth remembering that this was not always the case; from 1948, the year the state was founded, until 1977, the country was governed by a single party, Labour. While much of the West found stability under social-democratic politics during this period, Israel remained an exceptional case, as no other party mounted a serious challenge until the early 1970s. This was largely due to the country’s unique international situation, set among hostile neighbours.

War played an integral part in maintaining the political cohesion of Israel. Domestic conflicts of the kind that erupted in other states were subsumed under the higher cause of survival in the Israeli case. Labour relations, for instance, were managed through a large state union, the Histradrut. This state of constant alert was legitimised to the population in different ways during Israel’s history – at first through a language of radical social democracy that played upon the experiences of many of the early Zionists and immigrants in the labour politics of Europe. Later the experience of the Holocaust was mobilised, making the case that Israel’s survival was necessary for the survival of Jews everywhere.

As long as the state faced credible enemies on the outside, consensus could reign within. And Israel was able to exploit the threat further by becoming, during the 1960s, a staunch US ally against the radical Arab nationalist regimes. This was both a material and ideological prop: Israel became a massive recipient of US aid, while enjoying the prestige of a partnership with the world’s foremost power. The Zionist project was sustained through these various mechanisms despite the fact that its initial impetus, European anti-Semitism, was by now an irrelevance to the vast majority of Jews.

Yet such a situation could not last. As the project of third world nationalism ground to a halt, the leading states of the movement, such as Egypt, were forced to come to terms with the West and its allies. After the wars of 1973, Egypt’s pragmatic president, Anwar Sadat, went to the table and emerged from the 1979 Camp David process with the Sinai Peninsula and the second largest US annual aid package (Israel remained in first place). While the upheaval that the peace treaty caused in Egypt was perhaps more dramatic – Sadat was assassinated within two years – its impact on Israel was equally revolutionary. The dissipation of the outside threat (the menace of the remaining radical Arab regimes was largely illusory without the might and ideological pull of Egypt) left the Israeli political project without a guiding principle. The institution of the Labour party was an early casualty.

It seems as though this remains the case today. The past 25 years have been marked by a series of crisis periods, as Israeli elites have failed to find a contemporary mission for Zionism. The 1980s began with the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon, which only sharpened the cynical mood in Israeli politics. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seismic shifts in the global balance of forces – exacerbated tensions with the US. American leaders now tend to view Israel as much as a liability as a useful ally. The peace process represents one attempt to come to terms with these shifts, while Sharon and Co’s tough line on the West Bank wall represents another. The two political strategies are simply symptoms of the underlying problem. Indeed, Sharon seems to pursue both at the same time; even as he breaks away from Likud to form his new peace-orientated party, security forces have continued to perform extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinian militants (3).

Nor is the peace/conflict axis the only direction in which Israeli politics can sway. The new leader of the Labour party, Amir Peretz, is a former trade unionist who wants to direct discussion back to the question of social justice among Israelis. The latest reports suggest, however, that this new initiative is likely to succumb to the generalised cynicism about the political leadership (4). Just like Sharon, the Labour party is desperately seeking a way to reconstruct the social cohesion that once marked the Jewish state. In the meantime, we can expect more stunts and pragmatism from Sharon and his ilk.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Middle East

(1) Sharon Breaks the Political Mould, Guardian, 22 November 2005

(2) Report of the Secretary-General prepared pursuant
to General Assembly resolution ES-10/10 (Report on Jenin)
, United Nations
(3) Israeli Forces execute third assassination in five days, Electronic Intifada, 17 November 2005
(4) Press doubts emerge over Peretz, BBC News, 23 November 2005

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Topics Politics


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