On a recent warm afternoon in Gilo, a working-class Jerusalem neighborhood that borders the West Bank, a group of teenagers are smoking cigarettes outside a grocery. They are 18, about to be drafted, and about to become first-time voters. They're exactly the constituency Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born union leader recently elected head of Israel's Labor Party, needs to woo. Last election, Labor was so moribund that it captured barely 4 percent of 18-year-old voters. But Peretz's election has reinvigorated the party, giving Labor its best chance to retake the government since the collapse of the peace process five years ago.
At first glance, these Gilo teens look like good prospects for Labor. They say their families have been hit hard by budget cuts in social programs; they joke among themselves about whose mothers will have to stand on a street corner with a begging cup. And, like Peretz, the Gilo boys are Sephardi, Jews whose families come from Muslim countries. Peretz is being welcomed into many Sephardi neighborhoods that Labor leaders once feared to enter. And yet, in Gilo at least, Peretz seems to hold little appeal. "It would be interesting to have a Sephardi prime minister," one of the young men says. "All we've ever had are Ashkenazim. But not Peretz. He's a leftist. He's garbage." "We're Likudniks," adds a friend. "We're for Sharon."
But Ariel Sharon isn't with the Likud anymore, I say. Two weeks ago, Sharon announced he was quitting the Likud and founding his own party, Kadima, or "Forward." So what about the Likud's Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, who is the front-runner in the race to lead the party Sharon abandoned? "Bibi is garbage," answers a third youth. "When he was finance minister, he cut subsidies for old people and large families. Everyone in the neighborhood is Likud and Sharon."
And so it is in many neighborhoods across Israel. With Sharon's new party, Israel's centrist majority has finally found a political home. That majority, which emerged after the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000, rejected as utopian both the right's dream of "greater Israel" and the left's dream of "peace now." While centrists found a leader in Sharon, they still lacked a party. Instead, the political system was caught in a time warp. The Likud remained tied to the settlements project of the 1970s and 1980s, and Labor to its 1990s peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization. National unity governments bringing together Likud and Labor have always been popular. Yet centrist parties have fared poorly, rarely lasting a single term in the Knesset. Absurdly, with 15 parties in the current Knesset, not one represents centrist Israelis--who, in principle, are prepared to make almost any concession that would end the conflict but who, in practice, doubt that any concession will win Israel peace.
With Kadima, centrists now have a party ready to unilaterally impose consensus borders that most Israelis would willingly defend, ending the demographic and moral dangers of occupation while extricating Israel from a negotiating process that lacks a trustworthy Palestinian partner. This election, then, is above all a referendum on the new Israeli center. Is that center a passing phase--a discontent rather than a worldview--as its critics from left and right insist? Or can it replace the politics of wishful thinking with a new sobriety that accepts the limits of Israel's reach in conquest and in peacemaking?
The outcome of this referendum on the center remains far from certain. In part, this is because Sharon appears hesitant to convey the message that he represents a unilateralist alternative to right and left. At Sharon's press conference announcing the formation of Kadima, Israeli journalists repeatedly pressed the prime minister to declare that, should he win the March 28 elections, he planned additional unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank. Instead, Sharon blandly insisted that he remained committed to the "road map"--the phased plan introduced by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations--about which, two years after its release, negotiations haven't even begun. Few Israelis believe the road map has any chance of working. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hasn't begun implementing its first clause, which requires disarming terrorists--even as Sharon has already implemented, at least in Gaza, the road map's final clauses, which require dismantling settlements and creating a Palestinian state.
Sharon's reticence on unilateralism is understandable: He's wary of provoking a diplomatic crisis with the Bush administration, which remains committed to the road map, and of being seen as undermining Abbas. Meanwhile, he's leaving it to unnamed sources "close to the prime minister" to tell Israeli journalists that he has no intention of spending the next four years in office waiting for a nonexistent partner to appear. "the maps are ready," read one headline in the newspaper Maariv about Sharon's postelection plans for a West Bank unilateral withdrawal.
But hints through anonymous aides are no way to run a campaign. And Sharon's new slogan, "A Strong Leader for Peace," only further obscures his message by promising a peace the public no longer believes in. Nor is it helping Sharon's credibility as a centrist that the far-left Meretz leader, Yossi Beilin, has announced his willingness to sit in a Kadima-led government. Sharon's failure to articulate a centrist position could confuse voters and undermine the opportunity to create a new Israeli politics. "What's the difference between Sharon and Peretz?" one former Likud voter who intends to vote Labor asked me. "In the end, they'll both create a Palestinian state. So I might as well vote for Peretz. At least he'll help the poor."
Sharon isn't the only candidate trying to claim the mantle of the center. So is Peretz, who is, in fact, the most left-wing candidate ever to head Labor. A former Peace Now activist, Peretz opposes unilateralism and wants to proceed directly to final status negotiations, as if the last five years of terrorism never happened. He recently told a Tel Aviv memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin that it was time to return to the Oslo process--in contrast to other Labor leaders, who have tried to distance themselves from Oslo's failure.
Peretz, wrote Amnon Dankner, editor of Maariv, "is putting on the mask of a reasoned centrist. Which is too bad, because his real views arouse in me a pleasant sensation of nostalgia: I also thought exactly the same way, until dismal reality proved to me how naïve--indeed silly--I was." And commentator Ari Shavit noted in Haaretz: "It is unworthy for Peretz's challenging social welfare platform to serve as a smokescreen that hides the true agenda from the voters," adding that, "when he comes to propose peace within the 1967 borders, he must tell us honestly that he is proposing peace within the 1967 borders."
Peretz's strength is that he is Israel's first prime ministerial candidate to run a campaign driven not by security but by domestic issues, such as raising the minimum wage. He's addressing an acute need: One-fifth of Israeli families live beneath the poverty line, and Israel has one of the highest income disparities in the West. A nation that encourages immigration, demands extraordinary sacrifices of its citizens, and depends on social solidarity for survival needs to better protect its weakest members.
But Peretz's strength is also his weakness. A trade unionist with no background in foreign policy or security issues, he has hardly bothered to learn English: In a recent address to foreign donors of the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, he stumbled so badly while reading a prepared text in English that he became incoherent. (He's now reportedly taking a crash course in English, along with Russian, to appeal to Russian-born voters.)
Replacing Israel's security agenda with a domestic one is, at best, premature. In the coming months, Israel may face two existential dilemmas: whether to unilaterally determine its borders with the Palestinians and whether to unilaterally attack Iran's nuclear installations, should Western efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran fail. Peretz is hardly the man to make those fateful decisions. Indeed, nominating a candidate with no security experience will be seen by many voters as proof that the Labor Party is not ready to take responsibility for Israel's security and cannot be entrusted with running the country.
That suspicion is especially strong among Russian immigrants. The Russian vote has been decisive in electing every prime minister since Rabin in 1992; and, according to polls, fully half the Russian vote will go to Sharon, while much of the rest spreads further right. In a Gilo park, where young Russian couples stroll and old Russian men sit on benches beneath pine trees, playing chess, I found no one who trusts Peretz. "He's not for the workers; he's for himself," notes one woman accompanying her young granddaughter. "Russians don't like his mustache," she adds, laughing. "It reminds them of Stalin." Says another woman walking her dog: "Sharon knows how to mount sophisticated military operations with few casualties. Peretz isn't a leader; he's a populist."
So far, Sharon's Kadima is well ahead in the polls: The new party could win as many as 34 seats, compared with Labor's 28 and Likud's humiliating 13, down fully two-thirds from its current parliamentary strength. Likud primaries will be held on December 19, and Netanyahu is expected to win. Both Sharon and Peretz would benefit from a Netanyahu victory. As the former finance minister whose reforms deepened Israel's income gap, Netanyahu is an inviting target for Peretz's populism. As for Sharon, he can hope for no better scenario than a catfight between Peretz and Netanyahu--one a dogmatic socialist, the other a dogmatic capitalist, both of whom oppose unilateral withdrawal. In that case, even if Sharon fails to articulate a clear centrist message, he can allow his very presence to convey the steadiness and maturity that Israeli voters crave in a time of uncertainty. Which is precisely the referendum that Sharon really wants: a referendum on himself.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
By Yossi Klein Halevi