Israel’s Political Earthquake

Israeli politics is undergoing its most dramatic changes in 30 years. The realignment of parties and leaders is all the more remarkable because the latest developments – Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave the ruling Likud party, the defeat of Shimon Peres as the Labor party’s chairman, and Labor’s withdrawal from Sharon’s grand coalition government – were utterly unexpected. So it is all the more important to comprehend the significance of these changes for the future of Israel, the region, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel’s political system is, to put it simply, coming to the end of its second era. From independence in 1948 until 1977, the Labor party was dominant, before giving way to an opposition coalition of conservative, nationalist, and centrist parties allied in the Likud bloc. Since then, the two parties have taken turns in power, sometimes in grand coalitions and often in partnership with smaller parties.

On the surface, party competition has been between “left” and “right,” or “hawks” and “doves.” The truth, of course, is more complex. Social class and economic issues, overshadowed by the persistence of more existential concerns – physical security and the continued existence of the state – have played a much less important role in Israel than in other societies.

Here, the political divide could be defined as “optimists” versus “pessimists.” The former, as in Labor, believed that some day a force would emerge among Arabs and Palestinians ready to make peace on a reasonable basis; the latter, as in Likud, were more doubtful.