Moving politics to the center

Is Ariel Sharon's realignment of party politics good for Israel?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement Monday that he would be forming a new centrist party was undoubtedly a brave move. According to all indicators, had he remained in the Likud he would have led the party to victory and captured a third term as pri me minister. He gave all that up in order to implement plans which will, as he sees it, bring Israel to a safer shore. He has a desire to go down in history as a statesman and not merely a victorious politician. At Monday evening's nationally-televised n ews conference Sharon said his aspiration was to change Israel's political system, the nature of which hinders leaders from executing their policies. The question is whether his decision to create a new party - whatever its fortunes - is good for the Is raeli political system. Will Sharon's move solidify the system or polarize it? The answer, at this preliminary stage, has to be that the prospects for the political system are as uncertain as Sharon's political future itself. FOR YEARS many in the Isra eli political establishment have denounced the way our political system is organized. The main critique is the continuous need for coalition building in order to get things done. Unlike the American system, for instance, where the president has the freedo m to appoint, with the consent of the Senate, his chosen cabinet for a full term, in Israel cabinet composition is always connected to coalition needs. So it is not unusual to have cabinet ministers pulling in a different direction from the prime minister. Moreover, coalition-building isn't merely dictated by the need to placate outside parties; the premier must also negotiate inside his own political camp. At the news conference Sharon plainly said that he did not want to repeat for another term the internal Likud haggling he had experienced since disengagement was announced. Sharon anticipates that in the new - still formally unnamed party - he and those closest to him will determine the composition of the electoral list and thus who the party sends to the 120-seat Knesset. Obviously, absent a contentious central committee, Sharon has reason to assume he will now be in a position to implement his policies more decisively. But I doubt he will be able to accomplish all he wishes. The best result he ca n hope for is that his list wins about 30 Knesset mandates. Such a victory would be an unprecedented achievement for a new party. Nevertheless, Sharon obviously needs more than 30 seats to form a stable government. So he would still need to build a coal ition with parties to his right or left. Sharon can thus enter the next Knesset with his own loyal list, but he will have to compromise with other parties and leaders to actually form a government. And what of Sharon's list itself? To win, his party will have to reflect the various shades of Israeli society. Once elected the new MKs may well be loyal to Sharon as long as he is in power, but what happens once he passes from the scene? Indeed, even under his leadership Sharon loyalists will not be able to help thinking ahead, jockeying for internal position or, if the new center party appears to have no long-term future, planning for yet another political home. WOULD Sharon be able to initiate political reform? Perhaps. But he would be dependent on his coalition partners. They have their own interests and agenda. Moreover, having learned the lesson from one past political reform - direct election of the prime minister - which almost fractured Israel's political system by destroying the major parties, Knesset members might be hesitant to advance change in the electoral system, even under pressure from Sharon. Thus assume any reform would not come smoothly or speedily. THERE IS one positive outcome for the political system resulting from Sharon's move: The Left-Right political spectrum will be more stable. Despite the fact that most of the electorate finds itself in the center, no centrist party has ever fared well. The success of Shinui in the last election as a centrist party was squandered because of the extreme anti-religious positions of its politicians, including Tommy Lapid. Instead of becoming a stabilizing force, a bridge between Left and Right, Shinui has polarized the system. Sharon's success in the next election, while by no means certai n, may create a pivotal force that could, theoretically, coalesce both Right and Left. In addition, it will force Labor and Likud to compete for the center in order to defeat him. A new Israeli consensus has emerged in the past few years. It consists, on the one hand, of a rejection of Oslo; on the other, of the realization that the dream of Greater Israel is not attainable in this generation. This consensus has been under attack by both the extreme Left and radical Right. Hopefully, the need for Likud a nd Labor to compete with Sharon for the center will strengthen that national consensus. In the next several weeks the political scene will further clarify itself. Sharon's list will solidify. So will the lists of the other major parties. Alignments on th e Right and among the Orthodox parties will be clarified. These processes will provide further indications about the direction of the political system. What is clear even now is that the political system has in the past few days undergone a remarkable sh akeup. Only time will tell just how deep and far-reaching it will prove. Experience cautions us not to expect radical change. Ultimately, political systems reflect the political culture of their members, and that culture does not change over night. The writer, a political scientist, is a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center and is the Sara and Simha Lainer Professor in Democracy and Civility at Bar-Ilan University. ty