We stand at a watershed. The impending election could be the most important since Israel’s founding. The new leadership will be obliged to make critical decisions that could determine the country’s destiny for generations to come.
Politically, they will have to make hard judgments concerning our relations with the Palestinians. Economically, they will have to take bold steps to avert a major financial catastrophe. For this we will need an administration led by a team which in contrast to the previous divided “unity” government, has a game plan and speaks with one voice.
Regrettably, we have only limited options in the choice of our future government. The Labor Party has opted out of the mainstream by choosing a leader with policies relating to the Palestinians that the vast majority of us would consider unacceptable. The defeated incumbent, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, lacks charisma, but he represented one of the last remaining traditional Labor Zionists who had resisted joining the radicals.
In contrast, Labor’s new leader, Amram Mitzna – a communicator with leadership presence – remains fully committed to Oslo; his views are almost indistinguishable from those of Meretz and Yossi Beilin. The events of the past two years, including Yasser Arafat’s rejection of Ehud Barak’s generous offer and the ensuing war waged by the Palestinians against Israel – eventsthat even convinced the Americans to give up on Arafat – have not impacted on Mitzna’s views.
In what can only be described as bizarre, Labor’s contender for prime minister reiterated a willingness to renew relations with the terrorist in Ramallah and even announced an actual timetable for unilateral concessions to the Palestinians.
So, if Labor has marginalized itself and become somewhat irrelevant, what will the upcoming general election determine?
Above all, it will determine the nature of a stable government. Will such a government come into being, or to the despair of most of us, will narrow self-interest at the expense of the national welfare continue to prevail?
Logically we should be witnessing the greatest Likud landslide in Israel’s political history. So the building blocks of stable government are potentially there.
However, stability will not be achieved unless Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu decide to get their act together and stop feuding. Both men share a similar political tradition and vision, and despite their frequently heated public differences – including recent bitter exchanges over a Palestinian state – both could nevertheless accommodate themselves to working in the same team.
But will they?
At first there were welcome signs that their personal disputes would be set aside in the national interest. Sharon invited Netanyahu to become foreign minister and Netanyahu accepted. And despite a number of outbursts and understandable underlying tensions, contrary to all expectations, the Likud convention earlier this month did succeed in presenting a united front.
But it is the long-term future which is the most worrying. Netanyahu proposed that whoever loses the leadership battle should agree to continue serving as No. 2. Sharon did not respond wholeheartedly. In fact, he clearly avoided making any commitment to appointing Netanyahu to a senior position in the next government were he elected – even in the absence of a unity government.
It is highly regrettable that a Likud primary race could not have been avoided during such turbulent times. There is no doubt that it would have been preferable had both candidates agreed to a rotation or some such arrangement. But in absence of this solution, it is clear that most Likud supporters would be highly distressed if after the election is imposed on them, the winning candidate continues his feud with his opponent by excluding him from a senior role in the cabinet.
Netanyahu, the “man with the golden tongue,” is blessed with a unique talent to promote Israel’s case to the world. It would be tantamount to sabotaging the national interest if that tongue were to be silenced when we so desperately need an articulate spokesman to represent us in the war of ideas.
His contribution to economic affairs could also be valuable. A free-market promoter, he supports reducing government expenditure and costs, rather than raising the tax burden which encourages more businesses to flee offshore. If he loses in the primaries, he should still occupy a key position in a Likud government.
There are other potential dangers to the Sharon- Netanyahu infighting not being resolved. One is the real possibility that many disgruntled supporters of the defeated candidate will not vote Likud. They may abstain, or support the smaller parties. If that were to happen, we would be back to a plethora of one-dimensional parties and blackmailers pursuing their narrow sectional interests in lieu of the national interest. In other words, we would be back to where we started.
Though unlikely, the worst scenario would be if substantial numbers of the electorate become sufficiently disgusted with the internal squabbling between Sharon and Netanyahu and say “a plague on both your houses.” Should exasperated Israelis really turn against Likud, the recycled supporters of Oslo could be catapulted into office by default.
The reality is that both Sharon and Netanyahu have already established an important role for themselves in the nation’s history. They must not allow personal vendettas to deny the country the united leadership it so desperately needs during this crucial period.
We call on them, therefore, to overcome the divisiveness which has plagued the people of Israel for so many years. Deep in the soul of the nation today rests a consensus strengthened by recent experiences that the heart of our conflict with the Palestinians is not about territory, but about our right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state. A united Sharon-Netanyahu team can tap into that soul and formulate a program for the future dealing with the evil in our neighbors and promote a vision for the future with clarity and in unison. It is absolutely critical for the US to see that vision and hear that consensus.
While reiterating that the vast majority of us do not seek to rule over the Palestinians, our leaders must clearly articulate what is required of them before any future independent entity can be contemplated – an end to the terror and the incitement to violence, and the introduction of educational programs designed to reverse indoctrination and promote tolerance.
A Sharon-Netanyahu partnership would also provide the best chance of bringing about the necessary reforms to promote a free-market economy, while taking steps to ensure that the welfare net provides for those genuinely unable to fend for themselves.
We have now arrived at a moment of truth. As the renewal of a unity government is highly unlikely with Mitzna heading Labor, Sharon and Netanyahu are uniquely positioned to lead the nation towards peace and security and revitalize the economy. They could emerge as the most important and creative leaders Israel has ever had. If personalities and ambition divert either of them from their mission, history will judge them harshly as men who had it within their power to lead us out of the wilderness but kept us locked in it.
In the past, we witnessed the atrocious consequences to the body politic when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, two powerful leaders of the same party, continued a long feud. Woe to us if the forthcoming generation must endure a replay of that public degradation and dissipation, especially now when we are enduring a daily regime of bloodshed and terror.
The writer is senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress. firstname.lastname@example.org