Death of the left

The only political rivals Ariel Sharon worries about are on the far right. How did the Labour party,

Two months after its supposedly traumatic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel, normally so volatile, is uncannily calm. The outraged settlers, together with their numerous friends, are stunned by this unexpected tranquillity, which some of them ascribe to the spread of post-Zionism, or western-style hedonism. But their display of moral superiority as the only true Zionists has fallen flat: on the contrary, Israel's powerful newspapers have been flooded with good tidings and long articles extolling the virtues of Ariel Sharon. Remarkably, the most enthusiastic of these are written by respected liberal-minded journalists with a history of bitter enmity towards Sharon. They boast of their past hatred as if this enhances the impact of the new pro-Sharon propaganda.

It is now safe for Israelis who used to be proud members of the peace camp to back the prime minister to the hilt. Former mavericks, veterans of peace demonstrations and voters for small semi-leftist parties have concluded their long march and blended into the establishment, albeit without denting their wonderfully righteous self-image.

The decline of the Labour party as Israel's natural governing force is now a matter of record. How did this come about? It has been a long, slow process. The party made the classic mistake of many left-centre parties: losing touch with the mood of the people. Believed by its opponents to be run by an elitist Euro-centred clique, the party lost popularity as the ratio of Israelis with Asian or African backgrounds grew; the deprived denizens of poor neighbourhoods and development towns felt ignored or discriminated against. Then came the great influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union with little or no tolerance for socialist thought.

Confidence in the Labour-led process to make peace with the Palestinians was shaken with the assassination, by an Israeli, of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But its collapse, at Camp David in 2000, signalled Labour's own collapse. The party was swept away in the dramatic wave of Israeli outrage that followed the start of the second intifada. Its present leader, Shimon Peres, does not aspire or even purport to present an alternative to Sharon, lip-service to social-democratic slogans notwithstanding.

Sharon is now the unchallenged head of the "nationalist centre", a category that comprises the "moderates" in his own Likud party (about half its 40 members of the Knesset, or MKs), plus Labour and the secular neoliberal Shinui faction. This unofficial coalition commands the votes of at least 54 members of the Knesset, out of 120. With the reluctant support of the Arab MKs and the acquiescence of the hapless Meretz (Zionist left) faction, Sharon's majority is pretty unassailable, at least for the moment.

The collapse of Labour as a viable alternative has tremendous implications for the moderate left. Meretz's six MKs are largely silent, and even their most pungent and gifted speaker, Yossi Sarid, dedicates his rhetorical skills to relatively marginal issues. The attacks on Sharon are confined to accusations of corruption and sleaze. The prime minister's determination to exploit his newly acquired reputation as a moderate, and to bolster the settlement blocks in the West Bank, has ceased to draw fire from the left. Indeed, even the veteran leaders of the most prominent extra-parliamentary movement of the Zionist left, Peace Now, have abandoned street activities and mass rallies. Janet Aviad, the movement's leader, told the liberal daily Haaretz on 3 September: "What Sharon did was the most important thing that ever happened to the Israeli left, because what could be better than having Sharon himself dismantle settlements? I am now an optimistic woman with hope, and feel wonderful because the state underwent the disengagement without a trauma."

The political principles of the nationalist centre, partially shared by the Zionist left, are as follows.

- Israel will accept a Palestinian state in the occupied territories but will retain Greater Jerusalem and the large settlement blocks.

- This geopolitical set-up will be subject to America's approval. The co-ordination of Israel's foreign and defence policies with Washington is a strategic imperative, not a political option.

- Israel's policies in all areas must take into consideration the demographic factors: namely, ensuring a Jewish majority within the country's final boundaries.

- Economic policies will accord to free-market principles. This will entail far-reaching privatisation and deregulation. Eliminating the last remnants of social democracy is a shared goal of most of the participants in the nationalist centre.

These basic principles are supported by at least 62 MKs and partially by ten more. Support within Likud itself is more tenuous, and could collapse if Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister and hardline nationalist, takes over the party's leadership next year. Hardliners admit they have lost the battle over disengagement but still hope to rally people in Likud, and on the secular and religious right, to prevent any further withdrawals and evacuations of settlements. At the moment they can marshal at least 39 votes in the Knesset, a sizeable minority but not sufficient to change the course of the nationalist centre majority.

Their only realistic chance is to turn the tables on Sharon inside his own Likud party. The prime minister is aware of this danger and so refuses to promise to remain in the party if Netanyahu defeats him in the primaries next year. He is perfectly capable of splitting Likud and forming a new political entity with Labour, Shinui and perhaps 15 former Likud members.

To retain a governing majority, Sharon might have to form a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, and to rely on the passive support of Meretz and some of the Arab MKs. The alliance between Israel's Arab citizens and Labour was broken when 13 Israeli Palestinians were killed during a demonstration in October 2000. The Arabs are increasingly isolated, their rift with the Zionist centre irreparable. Though they will lend their votes in the Knesset to any gesture towards peace, they are unlikely to be rewarded by the centrist establishment.

It seems certain that current economic policies will continue without any real challenge from the left. Some politicians are likely to try to soften a few of the harsh laws that characterised Netanyahu's era at the ministry of finance. But such reforms are bound to be small and largely cosmetic. The Shas Mizrahi (Oriental) Orthodox party, with strong working-class support, will be pressing for concessions for the poor and the needy, without changing the structural free-market revolution.

The west must get used to the new reality: the political struggle inside Israel is now waged between the extreme right and the nationalist centre. The rest - populists, mild reformers, Jewish and Arab leftists and representatives of Israel's Muslim citizens - have become little more than passive onlookers.

Haim Baram is a writer and journalist based in Jerusalem