Makovsky, former managing editor of the English-language Jerusalem Post, says "it only makes sense that the reason Sharon would want to do this is to leave a legacy that he shaped the borders of Israel for a long time to come with the Palestinians or without the Palestinians as negotiating partners." He compares Sharon with the former French President Charles de Gaulle, who became president and pulled out of Algeria at a time when other French politicians were afraid to do so.
He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 28, 2005.
Israel and the Palestinian territories are awash in politics these days. Let’s start with the Israeli political scene where you have an unusual three-party race shaping up this spring. First, let’s talk about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision at mid- stream to break away from Likud, which he had helped form, and create another party. That’s never happened in Israel before, has it?
It’s an unprecedented development. Even when David Ben-Gurion [one of Israel’s founders, who was prime minister at Israel’s inception in 1948] broke from the Labor Party [then called Mapai, in 1965], which dominated Israel—he was retired at the time. He could not dominate the headlines as a sitting prime minister does. Therefore, even though the history of third parties in Israel is one which "begins with a sizzle and ends with a fizzle," we’re in uncharted territory here, and we have to be careful in not projecting the failures of the past upon this new party.
Let’s start with Sharon’s party. It’s called what?
They first called it National Responsibility, but they felt it was too cumbersome of a name. Now they’re calling it Kadima, which means "Forward."
Who’s in this party?
What Sharon has been able to do is basically carve out the whole moderate wing of Likud that was supportive of disengagement [from Gaza and parts of the West Bank last summer] and have them go to this new party. He seems to be motivated by a sense that next term will be his last and he wants to leave a legacy. He seems to believe that the Likud Central Committee, which currently names the slate [of those running for office in the Knesset, or parliament] for the Likud Party is too hawkish and could never provide him with the proper parliamentary backing for any diplomatic initiative which he would undertake.
He’s carved out the whole moderate wing and he’s taken it with him. The two exceptions are significant people, the Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Mofaz was a big supporter of disengagement; Shalom went back and forth many times. Sharon’s taken now fourteen parliamentary members of the Likud faction, which is a critical number because, if he has a third of the forty-member faction, he is entitled to campaign finance support under the existing law and broadcast time, such as commercials on public television, all at the Likud’s expense. There have now been dissidents from other parties that have joined him. I think he’s up to seventeen.
These are members of the Knesset?
Right, seventeen of the existing members, including Sharon, are now part of this new Kadima faction. And on the Labor side he’s taken Haim Ramon. Ramon was the leading light of the Labor party who believed the only chance for Israel to make a grand deal with the Palestinians was if there’s a broad secular middle that endorses such a move. He believed the Israeli political system was so balkanized as it currently is that it required this realignment, where basically Likud, Labor, and Shinui [a middle-of-the-road party whose name means "change"] come under one roof. He called this the "big bang" of Israeli politics. That is what Sharon is trying to do, but he’s calling it the "little bang" because Labor is not joining and Shinui is not joining, although it seems both parties would be amenable to a post-election coalition agreement as opposed to merging the way Ramon would’ve liked. Now there are rumors about Shimon Peres [the former head of Labor, who was recently defeated for re-election as party chief by Amir Peretz] joining too.
Let’s talk about Shimon Peres. He was voted out as leader of the party, and he’s eighty-two and this is obviously his last hurrah, although you can never predict with him.
You could say that about Sharon, too [who will be seventy-eight in February].
The two of them have been around for a long, long time.
There’s a joke that’s told that when Sharon won in early 2001 and the rupture with [former Palestinian Authority President] Yasir Arafat was not complete, he was on a conference call with Shimon Peres and Arafat and Sharon said, "Between the three of us we have 250 years of experience. We should be able to do something for our people."
In any event, what’s your guess? Do you think Peres will join Forward?
He might. I mean, it kind of cuts him in the core the more his people say that he’s a loser because he’s lost five or six elections. He is still respected as the "grand old man" of the Labor Party, a man who is a Nobel Peace Laureate and widely respected in the world and he genuinely believes, like Ramon, that for there to be a vibrant peace process you need the vital center of Israeli political life and the vital center of Palestinian political life to join hands.
Therefore, that is why he stayed with Sharon after the Gaza disengagement as well. By doing so, that kind of led to his downfall because inside the Labor Party they said, "Shimon, you told us we were required for disengagement for the good of the country, to help Sharon against recalcitrant rebels within his own party. We listened to you, but what’s the rationale to staying in afterwards?" That kind of led to the upset victory of Amir Peretz who said Labor is stagnant and lacking self confidence to go out on its own.
I think that it’ll be interesting to see what Peres does. I think the big news is the bombshell of Sharon. The big picture here, in my view, is here you have a Likud Party that has dominated Israeli political life for twenty of the last twenty-eight years. Unlike the Labor Party that was homogenous, where everyone believed two states should be created for the two peoples [Jews and Palestinians], Likud was traditionally heterogeneous, where you would have the hardliners, those people who wanted to cut a deal but based on Israel’s legitimate security requirements, and those who were a priori against any deal. What happened was, the votes for Likud never translated into deals, so that when Sharon thought you were voting for him a lot of the votes went for people who were against any form of statehood under any conditions.
These new developments put the country’s political map back in sync with the public map. Two-thirds of Israelis say they support a two-state solution. Now with Sharon’s new party, the broad middle will have a distinct identity apart from the Likud, which has never really clarified for itself which wing of the party it tilted toward.
Let’s talk a bit about Labor here. Peretz is a union leader. He’s known for his domestic policies. But he says he wants to get the "Peace Now" vote?
What’s fascinating about the Labor party is that it’s the first time since 1963 that you have a leader run for prime minister of the Labor party or either of the two major parties for that matter, who has no national security or foreign policy experience. It’s very telling that since the 1967 war in particular only people with such a background in national security and foreign policy could become a leader in Israel. It tells you something about the national security mentality of Israel. Now it tells me that when someone comes forward with no national security or foreign policy experience it is a sign of normalization that such a guy could be a legitimate candidate to lead Israel. That’s the great irony here. Precisely because Sharon has helped stabilize the security environment, this is what enables the Peretz candidacy to critique the economic policies of Sharon and Benyamin Netanyahu, who was Sharon’s finance minister and presumptive frontrunner in the Likud. The more Sharon is successful on security, the more the elections can be framed about income disparities that Israel never had the luxury to make a main issue because the issues were always the Palestinians.
On one hand, Netanyahu will say, "Look what I’ve done for the economy. Israel’s grown 5 percent according to the World Bank figures. Israel’s GNP [gross national product] is now $17,400 per capita. The whole intifada period has been erased; Israel is back to where it was." People say, "Yeah, that’s true." And Stanley Fischer, head of the Israeli Federal Reserve, will say 4.3 percent growth for 2006.
What Peretz is trying to do is remind Israel of its more socialist roots and to say we never had an income disparity in the early days, where 30 percent of the kids live under the poverty line, 19.3 percent of Israelis live under the poverty line. He will try to bring Labor back to the early 80’s and remind Israelis of their responsibility and a time for social solidarity. But at the same time, it’ll be tricky for Peretz because now there’s a middle class in Israel that has emerged over the last twenty years and the word "socialism" is not considered a vote-getter.
Peretz has brought in business leaders like Avishai Braverman, president of Ben Gurion University, to say Peretz is not a socialist, but rather, he’s like Tony Blair and try to recast him even though Peretz has called himself a socialist and head of the trade union, Histadrut. I should note that his voter-mobilization techniques in the Histadrut are what enabled him to sign up 20,000 new voters who turned against against Peres. My sense is Peretz will not open up a front against Sharon on national security and foreign policy because he’s trying to track toward the center where elections in Israel are won, and he believes that Sharon will try to say, "You’re a neophyte." If people want to ask what’s Peretz’s strategy here, it’s clearly to make the economic critique and to basically mute any foreign policy differences with Sharon because that won’t help him with those middle voters and only make him vulnerable to Sharon’s charges about his lack of experience.
Does it like look from the polling that Sharon’s new party is in the lead, with Labor second and Likud third?
Polling isn’t an exact science in the Middle East, and between now and March [when the Israeli Knesset elections are set] is an eternity, so many things can change. Like I said, the history of third parties is that the novelty wears off and the numbers drop. But we’re in a different situation. Sharon has really electrified the country with his breaking away from Likud. Many had thought that the ideology of the Likud’s party apparatus was able to prevent any meaningful diplomatic initiatives. Sharon has suddenly captured the headlines.
Do you think Sharon will make any deals with the Palestinians if he is elected?
I think people are saying that he’s doing this because the last term in office is the legacy term. If there’re no bilateral hopes that emerge from the Palestinian elections [in January 2006] and the prospects of bilateralism are bleak, then Sharon might move unilaterally in the West Bank in the way he disengaged from Gaza.
It’s fascinating to see Sharon’s own odyssey: In the past, he wanted to control 100 percent of the West Bank, now he talks about 8 percent of the West Bank. That was basically the Labor Party platform of 1999. He’s trying to say, I think, that anything inside the security fence [surrounding Israel] will be Israeli and anything outside the fence, he’d be open to giving up. He’s not come out and said, "In the fence Israeli and out of the fence Palestinian." I think Ehud Olmert, his top lieutenant, has said that by talking about the blocs which are all inside the fence.
It only makes sense that the reason Sharon would want to do this is to leave a legacy that he shaped the borders of Israel for a long time to come with the Palestinians or without the Palestinians as negotiating partners. I think, like [former French President Charles] de Gaulle, he sees himself as the only person who could do it, a general in wartime who brought the troops home from Algeria and French settlers home from Algeria.
Sharon’s seen by himself and by others as the seminal figure in Israeli politics who can really knock down these settlements, which are outside the settlements in Israel and outside the fence in the West Bank. I think he has people excited that he wants to do something dramatic. I think the Bush administration preference will be to work it bilaterally with [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas, believing he’s not Arafat. The Israelis don’t contend he’s Arafat, I must say, and they realize that he’s a legitimate interlocutor for them. But I think he just cannot get his act together. The institutions are too weak and he is unable to galvanize the kind of broad institutional basis for any broad, bilateral deal. I think the United States would tell Sharon, "Give it a chance. You have a stake if there’s a failed Palestinian state on the other side of the fence."
Let’s talk about the Palestinians. They have parliamentary elections in January. What is likely to happen?
This is the $64,000 question. It’s the first time Hamas is contesting an election. Hamas refused to contest the 1996 election, believing that to contest it would be acknowledging the Oslo agreements with Israel, which was somehow to taint Hamas as almost cooperating with Zionism. So now, ten years later, they want their piece of the pie. They want to contest that election.
The question will be what the impact of that will be on the result of the election and its aftermath. Some here in Washington wonder if Hamas, with its 30 percent of the vote and independents floating in the Palestinian legislative council, will get 50 percent and constrain Mahmoud Abbas’ actions. We don’t know the answer to that. The international community, the G8 [Group of Eight] summit in Scotland, James Wolfensohn—the outgoing president of the World Bank [and current Middle East envoy], Secretary of State Condolezza Rice with her deal on the Rafa [border crossing] to open up a trade route for the Palestinians from Egypt, all these are part of one effort to demonstrate that the moderates can galvanize economic support and that the Mahmoud Abbas way pays and the radicals’ way does not.
The radicals have gained politically by an image of being incorruptible when Fatah [the ruling Palestinian party set up by Arafat] has been deemed to be corrupt and they also have gained because of this sense that they have delivered social services while Fatah has not. There is now an effort to change this perception, and the question is whether that perception can change significantly before the Palestinian elections.
What is also critical is what sort of candidate list Fatah is going to be able to get. Because Mahmoud Abbas does not want to alienate the old guard, he might tolerate a lot of people who are perceived as being corrupt, which will actually hurt him in the balloting on January 25. I think it will be very useful if Mahmoud Abbas tells President Bush that in the aftermath of a Palestinian parliamentary election that he will pass legislation on disarmament and begin disarming people. Some wonder if Hamas does well, will he be able to carry this out even if he was so disposed?
I personally believe that it would be good if could announce his post-election intentions as part of a platform and therefore in the aftermath claim that it is part of a mandate. He won by a convincing margin last year. His popularity numbers were actually double what Arafat’s numbers were throughout almost all the intifada. I think the issue here is his willingness to claim a mandate for his policies.