Reiterating Likud’s Inflexibility

Although it brought nothing new, the highly entertaining show provided at the Likud Party convention on Sunday night (which passed a resolution that no Palestinian state would ever be established to the west of the Jordan River) could not have been better orchestrated or timed. While Ariel Sharon, basking in the glory of the highest popularity enjoyed by an Israeli prime minister, knew exactly what to do, less sneaky politicians may have been at odds over how to provoke yet more displays of support. Joined on stage by Benjamin Netanyahu in a classic act of discord, Sharon somehow managed to pass off the impression that he would definitely consider a Palestinian state, if only his partisans would let him.

Had the contrived duel of wills between Sharon and Netanyahu not been so transparent, it may have explained the alarm bells sounded by ingenuous observers who suddenly feared for the peace process. It was indeed quite a sight: two veterans of the Israeli political establishment quarreling like kids over who really was more radical and hard-line (read “patriotic”), or over who had shaken hands with Arafat and who hadn’t, staging a contest over which of the two hawks would manage to be positioned to the right of the other.

Panicked comments quickly emerged, some implying é laughably é that Sharon was now officially a moderate (or the lesser of the two evils), and that the resolution passed by the Likud was yet another nail in the peace dove’s coffin. Ensuing deliberations about which of the great actors won on Sunday are moot. For all their theatrics, Sharon and Netanyahu may differ on form but concur on content. They share an identical conviction on the matter of a Palestinian state, espousing the ideology endorsed in the founding agreement of Likud: that Israeli sovereignty extend to the whole territory west of the Jordan River (naturally including the West Bank and Gaza) while simultaneously maintaining a claim over Transjordanian territory. In other words, that there never, ever be a Palestinian state on the land of historic Palestine.

Sharon was not asking to revoke the proposed resolution, but rather to postpone it.  “I would like to ask the chairman of this session to put my proposal to a vote, that the Likud today abstain from passing a resolution on the permanent arrangements. This would be a dangerous mistake. Any resolution passed today with regard to the permanent agreement would be dangerous to the state of Israel and would increase the pressure on it prematurely.”

Sharon clearly said that he found voting today to be premature, asking instead for the Likud to pass a resolution endorsing his government’s “determined struggle against terror until victory.” Then, perhaps, Sharon would divulge to those who were still oblivious to his repeated candid statements that he indeed rejects a Palestinian state. At least, one cannot fault the Bulldozer for inconsistency: Only last week, he smiled and told reporters in a photo opportunity at the White House that it was still “premature” to discuss the issue of the establishment of a Palestinian state.

However, it was only after Sunday’s vote that the US administration somehow got wind of the Likud’s position. President George W. Bush, smiling alongside Sharon last week, had apparently failed to notice that the latter had in effect just publicly burst the bubble of his vision of the region. Colin Powell, initially more alert and skeptical of his boss’s depiction of Sharon as a “man of peace,” called him after the Likud convention but still emerged satisfied that he remained committed to the idea of Palestinian statehood.

A politician of Sharon’s stature would not be taken by surprise by Netanyahu’s antics. After all, it was at Sharon’s personal request that the former prime minister toured the US and Europe to plead Israel’s cause as “Operation Rampart” was waged. Surely Sharon had already accounted for the possibility of Bibi getting too big for his boots, even at such a quick rate, and thought this would play to his advantage.

Like Sharon, Netanyahu was only attempting to gather support for his position within the party, starting rather early on an unofficial campaign for the October 2003 elections in Israel. Having jumped on the government’s PR bandwagon a few weeks ago, Netanyahu has tried to erase memories (which Sharon was eager to revive) of anti-Likud positions he had officially adopted during his stint as prime minister, when he technically agreed to implement the Oslo Accords and signed the Wye River Plantation Accords.

There will still be ample time for Sharon and Netanyahu to battle it out, and to outdo each other in extremism and hypocrisy. Sharon should know better than to infer that terror is not defeated with “books and lectures, or by speeches and slogans,” having himself dispatched that very weapon through Netanyahu, the most efficient carrier Likud has to offer.

So far, Sharon thinks he has “defeated” terrorism by brutally invading Palestinian towns, and even though he would have rather delayed the vote, he plans on further defeating terrorism by simply rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, lauded the resolution as being an important step in the “war on terrorism,” illustrating once more just how appreciated Likud (and Israeli) politics are in some American camps.

Likud’s brilliant logic is that if you deprive the Palestinians a state of their own on their own land, somehow you will have destroyed “terrorism.” That would, of course, be forgetting lessons in Israel’s own history, which show only too well how a state can be created after consistent terror attacks. Sharon knows it firsthand and Netanyahu knows it by proxy, saying that “the worst mistake we can make is promise the Palestinian terrorism the biggest prize of all, the establishment of an independent state of its own.” This seemed reasonable to the majority of the Likud’s central committee, who thus voted overwhelmingly that no Palestinian state will be established west of the Jordan River.

According to the latest polls, however, most Israeli citizens (to whom the prime minister is ultimately accountable) do not believe this to be a wise position. While they support Sharon in his current war on Palestinians, the majority of them believe in the establishment of a Palestinian state one day.

The current Sharon-Netanyahu showdown, regardless of its outcome, is no more than a side show in the bigger context of Israeli politics. It does not bring new elements to the Palestinian issue, it does not change the fundamental tenets of the Likud, and it does not by itself shift the balance of power within the party. The only thing it seems to have achieved is exposing its intransigence to those who still doubted it. Well before general election time arrives, it is likely that the Likud, under Sharon’s leadership, will try to pave the way for an even more right-wing government in power.

A search for the winners or losers of Sunday’s debacle should be made outside the confines of the party: As usual, it is the Palestinians who stand to lose the most from this simple reiteration of the Likud’s mission statement. As for Sharon and Netanyahu, they have only gained additional support from their respective cliques, which does not automatically translate into support from different Israeli sides, for whom it will be an ongoing struggle to determine which of the two is the “right” one.

Rime Allaf is a writer and specialist in Middle East affairs. She is also a consultant in international communications and new economy business.

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