Avanti, Kadima, and Sharon

The sad truth is the Arabs will not benefit if the ailing Israeli prime minister dies because he is the only heavyweight in Israel able and willing to push for long-term peace with the Palestinians.

It is interesting to note how passively the Arab world is reacting to the grave illness of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Had he suffered a stroke in the years 2002-2003, for example, at the height of his atrocities in the intifada, then perhaps there would have been celebrations in Arab capitals such as Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Amman that suffered most from Sharon, in addition to massive outpouring in the Palestinian territories. But Sharon is critical at a time when every Arab country is pre-occupied with its own affairs to care about the butcher of Palestine or the architect of the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

The sad truth is the Arabs will not benefit if Sharon dies because from where he stands today, he is the only heavyweight in Israel able and willing to push for long-term peace with the Palestinians.

Nobody other than Sharon has the legitimacy, the popularity, or ability to impose a peace treaty on the Israelis. He established himself as a man of war, and after much bloodshed, now wanted to enter history as a peacemaker.

This is similar to the case of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who used to tell his aides while waiving his right arm: “See this hand? Only this hand can sign a peace treaty with Israel.” And today, sadly only Sharon’s hand can sign a peace treaty with the Palestinians at least, for the foreseeable future.

The other big names in Israeli politics are either unable, or unwilling, to conduct peace. Shimon Peres (83) is a political dinosaur who has been outflanked by a new generation of Labor Party politicians. The greatest symbol of his weakness is that he lost the Labor Party elections against Amir Peretz in November 2005.

Peres, struggling to stay alive politically, has pledged support for Sharon’s new party Kadima but has not joined it. If Sharon dies, Peres might play an important role as a grandfatherly figure for all political players in Israel, but this would be very temporary. Even if Peres becomes leader of Kadima, as some Israelis expected after Sharon’s hospitalisation, he would be unable to enforce peace on anybody and Kadima would not be a strong party because it derived its strength from the clout of Sharon.

Without him it would be defeated by well established, popular, and historical parties such as Labor and Likud.

Amir Peretz, head of the Labor Party, is also a candidate for leadership in Israel, but he is more committed to social issues than to making peace with the Palestinians. He is not a strong politician outside of Labor, and like Peres, does not have the ability to impose peace or sell a peace deal to the Israelis.

The biggest winner in post-Sharon Israel is Benjamin Netanyahu, who is striving to replace Sharon at the premiership, a post from which he was ejected by Labor in July 1999. He is strong, shrewd, ambitious, charismatic and well-connected in the United States. His only problem (in Arab eyes) is that he is opposed to a peace deal with the Palestinians and rejects giving any concessions to the Palestinians unless he sees real action that dismantles resistance movements such as Hamas and ends the ongoing intifada.

If he does comes to power after Sharon, he will certainly not work for a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

Newborn party

Standing between all of these Israeli politicians is Sharon’s newborn party Kadima, which he had formed after leaving the Likud in November 2005. Among other things, the party says Israel has a right to the whole of Israel, but in order to maintain a Jewish majority, parts of the Israel must be “given up” to maintain a democratic Jewish State.

According to Kadima, Occupied Jerusalem and large colonies in the West Bank will remain under Israeli control, in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, carried out in late 2005. It is committed to the roadmap, but will only advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations when the Palestinians dismantle their militias, collect firearms, implement security reforms in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and prevent aggression against Israel. According to Sharon, Kadima is a “liberal party”. It wants a separate Palestinian State to reduce friction between the Israelis and Palestinians and like Sharon, the party is very much opposed to the one-state solution. Will it succeed in Israeli politics in the post-Sharon era? Kadima means “onward” and reminds us of the Italian word avanti.

The word was used by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to call Italian men to battle during the first five months of World War I when he was serving as editor-in-chief of the socialist newspaper Avanti. While wanting them to move onward, however, Mussolini actually dragged Italy into World War II and ruined the country due to his madness. Sharon’s avanti is different. He wanted the Israelis to move forward. He is my enemy and the enemy of my countrymen but I cannot but admire his commitment to Israel and for more than 50 years, his insistence to tell the Israelis Avanti. Had we had someone such as Sharon in the Arab world, we would have defeated Israel a long time ago.

We don’t have a Palestinian leader today who is as hard-working or as committed to his cause as Sharon is to the Israelis. On the Palestinian side, he was matched by the late Arafat. Without them, the Arab-Israeli Conflict will certainly be changed. It won’t get resolved but it also, will never be as clear cut, personified, ideological, and emotionally charged as it has been since 1948.

Gulf News, 10 January 2006