Imagine if George W. Bush–elected president of the United States with overwhelming conservative Republican support–suddenly woke up one morning, called a press conference, and announced, “I believe Hillary Clinton was right about how to reform health care, and I hereby intend to implement her plan to nationalize America’s health-care system.”
Imagine then that a furious GOP demanded that President Bush at the very least hold a referendum within the party to decide whether embracing HillaryCare was really a good idea, and abide by its results. Now imagine that having lost that referendum decisively, and choosing to ignore the results, President Bush now asked Dick Cheney to step down and asked Hillary to serve as his vice president for the sake of “national unity.”
Finally, imagine that having begun to implement HillaryCare and thus alienating most of the GOP, President Bush decided to bolt the party that nominated and elected him and create his own “centrist” party.
Now welcome to Israel.
Ariel Sharon was elected in 2001 as chairman of the Likud party, the party he helped found, and went on to win the largest landslide in modern Israeli political history. He did so as a security hawk, a man who once said “Jordan is Palestine,” a man who vowed never to give away an inch of territory to the Palestinians and to fight Palestinian terror tooth and nail. Then one day he woke up apparently having decided that the left-wing parties in Israel were right about national security. He decided to give away the Gaza Strip unilaterally, without getting anything from the Palestinian leadership in return, and to begin withdrawing from significant portions of Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank) as well.
Likud-party leaders (and members of Sharon’s own Cabinet) like Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky demanded that Sharon’s plan be put to a vote of Likud members. Sharon lost handily, but it didn’t matter. He reshuffled his Cabinet, asked Labor-party leader Shimon Peres to join him as vice premier, and set into motion the biggest national-security gamble in Israeli history. Netanyahu and Sharansky resigned in protest.
Then along came Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born head of Israel’s trade unions. An avowed socialist, he just won a surprise victory in the Labor-party primaries by branding Shimon Peres as having betrayed the party by joining a government led by Sharon that passed a series of pro-growth tax cuts, banking reforms, privatizations, and budget cuts.
I just left Israel after ten days in the country and had the opportunity interview Peres less than 48 hours after he was defeated. He still looked shell-shocked and confused by the dramatic and unexpected turn of events. He had, after all, been expected to win his primaries handily.
Now Peretz is the head of the Labor party and he has moved quickly and decisively to pull Labor out of the coalition, thus triggering new elections.
Sharon had no more hope of winning a Likud primary against Bibi Netanyahu than President Bush would have of winning a GOP primary against a major conservative rival if he had suddenly embraced HillaryCare and made the former First Lady his vice president. So he quit to form a new party which he calls the “National Responsibility Party.”
Elections will likely occur early next year, probably in late February or March, but few have any idea how they will play out. Noted the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot, Sharon’s departure from Likud has triggered “a political earthquake of unprecedented magnitude….Senior Likud officials believe that Sharon is about to smash the existing political establishment in Israel to pieces and to build on its ruins a system that will crystallize and remain stable for years to come.”
There is an X Factor. Under Israeli election law, within the next 21 days “a bloc of 61 MKs [Members of Knesset] can present the president with an alternative MK to form a government (the most likely candidate being Benjamin Netanyahu),” noted Ha’aretz. “The candidate would then have 28 days to try forming a government, with a possibility to extend this period by 14 days.”
Still, it seems unlikely that Bibi or any Israeli leader can put together a government so quickly amidst so much turmoil. That, of course, is what Sharon is counting on.
So, what should outsiders look for?
‐Thursday is the next big day in the Israeli political calendar. While Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, Likud will hold an internal election to choose a new chairman. Bibi is widely considered the favorite, though there are others who will challenge him. Among them: MK Uzi Landau, Education Minister Limor Livnat, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. If Bibi wins, his challenge will be to unify Likud as quickly as possible and begin to look for allies amongst the other parties and among right-of-center voters.
‐From there, watch to see if Sharon’s Likud supporters remain committed to him. Already, several are rumored to be having second thoughts about jumping ship and joining Sharon’s new party. “Centrist parties in Israel have a long history of falling apart before the election,” one Likud strategist reminds me.
‐Watch what Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz does. Sharon is putting a great deal of pressure on him to come with him. Bibi is urging Mofaz to stay with Likud. His decision may be an interesting bellwether of Sharon’s chances, and Bibi’s.
‐Expect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to go into hiberation, at least until next spring. The Palestinians are expected to hold their legislative elections in January, followed by the Israeli elections. Little of significance is likely to happen between now and then.
–Joel C. Rosenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of a political thrillers about Israel. His latest is The Ezekiel Option. He previously worked for Messrs. Netanyahu and Sharansky.