According to the conventional journalistic wisdom, this week’s election in Israel was so dull that it caused the lowest voter turnout – 63 percent – in the nation’s history. Dull? Perhaps – although one wonders how dull it could have been for Israelis to enter the voting booths and be presented with a choice of 31 political flavors, including three Arab parties, four Orthodox Jewish parties, a Russian Party, a Green Party of environmentalists) a Green Leaf Party (pro-marijuana) and a Pensioners Party led by a 78 year old ex-head of Mossad (Israel’s CIA) who captured Adolph Eichmann, was Jonathan Pollard’s spymaster, and more recently, as a private citizen, made millions of dollars doing business in Castro’s Cuba.
But whatever else it was or wasn’t, the election was definitely not inconsequential. Indeed, it is likely to go down as a historic turning point in Israel’s politics. For this was the election campaign that put an end to the intra-Zionist ideological wars that began in the 1920s and continued to haunt the new state of Israel’s political system for at least another half-century. The ghosts of Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion, of Revisionist Zionism versus Labor Zionism, have finally been exorcized. And, notwithstanding the greatness of these towering historical figures, this is a good thing for Israel.
Just consider the two top leaders of the victorious Kadima Party: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Both came up through the ranks of Likud and had parents who were important figures in the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the pre-state military arm of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement. Olmert and Livni were nurtured almost from the cradle in what has been called the Irgun’s “fighting family” and in an ideologically homogeneous and maximalist Zionism. Yet in the past year both have made startling statements that would seem to be out and out heresies to the traditional Revisionist perspective. Olmert shocked a liberal American audience by conceding that Israelis are “tired of winning wars,” that they much preferred peace – even if that peace came without the complete Land of Israel. Livni has spoken of the need for Israel to try to win over international opinion by moderating some of its policies towards the Palestinians. Both leaders are for the creation of a Palestinian state on territory that their ideological forbearers considered the historic and eternal heartland of Eretz Israel.
The Labor Party, likely to be Kadima’s junior partner in the next government, is now also in retreat from its own historic Zionist roots. Labor’s new leader, the populist Amir Peretz, seems to be more inspired by the bread and butter concerns of a European trade union boss than by David Ben Gurion’s pioneering Zionism and the old labor movement’s vision of settling the land. Even the diminished Likud party (finishing out of the money in fifth place) seems to have walked away from its ideological and historic roots. Likud’s leader Bibi Netanyahu, also a scion of a distinguished Revisionist family, had previously opposed Olmert’s and Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza strip, but only on tactical grounds (some would say opportunistic political grounds) and not because of principled opposition to ceding any part of historic Eretz Israel. Uzi Landau, the only prominent Likud leader who still supports the priority of defending the whole land of Israel, was placed 14th on the party’s Knesset list. But because Likud was thoroughly trounced in these elections, winning only 11 seats, Mr. Landau won’t even be in the next Knesset.
Admittedly, there are supporters of Israel who see these developments, this casting off of historical Zionist baggage, as an unmitigated catastrophe, a weakening of Israel’s will that leads inevitably to further appeasement of Palestinian terror. The astute Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes thus bemoans the fact that in this election none of Israel’s political parties stood for a strategy of “winning the war against the Palestinians.” Citing General Douglas MacArthur’s classic dictum that “there’s no substitute for victory,” Pipes says all the current Israeli substitutes, including Sharon and Olmert’s unilateralism, merely encourage Palestinian aggression.
The problem with MacArthur’s insight is that this is the Middle East, not the Pacific theater during World War II. Without having to deal with outside restraints, MacArthur could bring Japan to its knees and remake Japanese society. But Israel, because of the realities of big power politics in the postwar era, has been denied total victory in each of its wars against the Arabs. Even when attacked, it has never been allowed to occupy an Arab capital. Thus, unlike MacArthur’s “total victory” model for ending a war, the Arabs never had to sue for peace.
So it’s not clear what kind of “victory” Pipes contemplates against the Palestinians. Is it a new military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip and the destruction of the Palestine government? Can anyone believe that the Bush administration, or any American government, would allow that? It’s also odd that Pipes, a total pessimist about the U.S. military ever being able to pacify Iraq and turn that country into a democracy, somehow believes Israel can fundamentally change Palestinian political culture and behavior through military means.
Actually, Ariel Sharon’s historic accomplishment was that he did find the means of defeating the second Palestinian intifada – not by reconquest or “total victory,” but through a measured combination of the separation wall, the military check points, and by targeted assassinations of the operational leaders of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign. That “limited” victory, in turn, has given Sharon’s successor the political space to realistically contemplate a total separation from the Palestinians. While that solution wouldn't yet be “peace” or a perfect solution, it might just bring some much needed respite to a brave people who year after year have been on the front lines of the war on terror. Friends of Israel can only wish its new non-ideological government well in this quest.
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