Israeli affairs in recent weeks have become almost synonymous with Likud politics. Even the most astute and seasoned observers of the convoluted domestic scene in this country have fallen into the trap of equating Israel's policy agenda with the limited terms of the intra-party debate. Now that the prime minister has weathered the attempt to depose him, it is crucial to regain some of the perspective lost in the process.
Israel has three (not two) distinct strategic options on the overriding (and electorally decisive) issue of peace and security. The first, represented by Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud renegades, calls for a complete moratorium on any further Israeli initiatives. This position, marked by purposeful ambiguity in the name of ideological purity, still holds sway in broad circles of the ruling party. It has, however, been shunted to the sidelines, at least until the next elections.
The second option, masterfully depicted by Ariel Sharon both in the United Nations General Assembly and in his undelivered speech in the Likud Central Committee, seeks to unilaterally create a mini-Palestinian state in Gaza and portions of the West Bank. The objective is transparent: annexation of the settlement blocs, metropolitan Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley in order to assure permanent Israeli control over as much land with as few Palestinians as possible.
The Sharon doctrine enjoys support far beyond the confines of the Likud, attracting adherents in large portions of Shinui as well as in the Labor Party. This popular base, whether ultimately presented to the electorate by Ariel Sharon at the head of the Likud or at the helm of a new, reconfigured party, will undoubtedly garner considerable votes.
A THIRD strategic option, with strong roots in the Israeli polity, has emerged from the recent upheavals with greater clarity. This alternative envisions the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel on the 1967 borders with minor adjustments by agreement. Best articulated by Meretz and the dovish wing of Labor, proponents of this approach advocate a resumption of negotiations on a permanent settlement, now.
Political pundits and policymakers have tended to belittle both the prevalence of this voice within the Israeli public and its potential power. Recent polls show that fully 70% of Israelis think there will be a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fifty percent support the immediate renewal of comprehensive talks.
There are very few expectations (either internationally or in the region) for the vigorous pursuit of these divergent scenarios in the near future.
The plethora of outstanding disengagement-related issues, coupled with pre-election fever in Palestine (until the end of January) and Israel (probably for six months more), ostensibly means that the process in its entirety is temporarily being placed on hold. In reality, however, during this supposed limbo there may be much more movement than currently foreseen.
For the right-wing diehards every day that passes without significant change is another step toward the solidification of an irreversible Israeli presence in the West Bank. The defeat of this school in the Likud this week makes this prospect highly unlikely.
For the unilateralists, firmly in office for the next critical months, this hiatus is an unusual opportunity to consolidate changes on the ground. These will involve not only the completion of the security barrier as a political boundary, the expansion of the major settlement concentrations and rapid construction in the greater Jerusalem nexus, but also to allay mounting criticism the removal of unauthorized outposts in the spirit of the road map and possibly the evacuation of remote settlements in the Palestinian heartland.
THE DOMINANCE of this most probable eventuality poses a serious challenge for advocates of a permanent settlement. They will employ a combination of three tools to offset these trends: prevention, pragmatism and proaction.
First and most significant is a persistent, concerted effort to stymie further moves to predetermine the shape of the Palestinian state. In a period of forced stagnation, they argue, prevention is progress.
The second tactic involves the continuation of practical cooperation measures initiated within the context of the Gaza withdrawal. Unresolved issues (including air, sea and land links as well as arrangements for the movement of goods and people) must be addressed. The promotion of tangible improvements in daily life in the Palestinian territories can be advanced. The extent of constructive interaction will be enhanced.
The third instrument is avowedly proactive: the conscious reopening of channels of semi-formal and informal interaction. Disengagement militarily is being accompanied by an effective political reengagement across a wide spectrum of both populations for the first time in five years.
The political survival of the Sharon camp need not necessarily imply the triumph of his project of conflict management. Unlike the compromised rejectionists within his own party, those who believe that his objectives are inherently uninspired, essentially inequitable and eventually self-defeating do have a vital role to play today. They can, in anticipation of a true electoral contest, thwart retrogressive moves, nurture mutual respect and significantly broaden the parameters of the internal Israeli debate heretofore monopolized by the stifling Likud narrative.