Israel’s newest political party, The Third Way, is struggling to avoid a bruising leadership battle just as it launches its new political career.
The Third Way, which takes a centrist stand between what it views as the Labor Party’s growing dovishness and the Likud Party’s hawkish intransigence, supports giving land to the Palestinians in return for peace, but opposes an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories.
In late October, members of the group – including retired generals, college professors and political analysts – voted to transform their fledgling movement and run a slate of candidates in Israel’s 1996 national elections.
The party, with its large concentration of intellectuals and former generals, believes that it is best equipped to grapple with Israel’s security needs while forging peace with its Arab neighbors.
But first it has to forge a peace within its own ranks.
The “Battle of the Generals” is the term chosen by most Israeli headline writers to describe the mounting tension between Avigdor Kahalani and Dan Shomron for the top spot on The Third Way’s ticket.
Kahalani, the Yemenite-born hero of the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, retired from the army in 1989 with the rank of brigadier general.
He joined the Labor Party and was elected to the Knesset in 1992. A year later, he ran unsuccessfully as the party’s candidate for mayor of Tel Aviv, losing to a former Likud minister, Ronnie Milo.
In early October, Kahalani, along with Emanuel Zismann, bolted from Labor after refusing to vote for the accord to expand Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
The defection of two of the Labor Party’s most outspoken hawks left Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with a slender 61-59 Knesset majority to back the Interim Agreement, which was signed in Washington on Sept. 28.
Ironically, retired Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, the former Israel Defense Force chief of staff who refused to promote Kahalani to the rank of major general in the army, is now his rival for the leadership of the party.
Though rivals for the No. 1 spot, Kahalani and Shomron are meanwhile fighting shoulder-to-shoulder to staunch a threatened hemorrhage of other ranking former military officers from their movement.
Reserve Maj. Gen. Mordechai Hod, a former Israel Air Force commander, announced his session immediately after the Third Way council’s decision to become a political party.
A lifelong Labor Party loyalist, Hod had reasoned that The Third Way’s participation in next year’s election was likely to hurt Labor more than Likud.
Other key founding figures of The Third Way are threatening to join Hod in seceding, including retired Maj. Gens. Yitzhak Hofi and Zvi Zamir – both of whom are former heads of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.
These men are considered among Israel’s foremost experts on defense matters. They are also close personal friends of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s.
Their presence in The Third Way gave the movement enormous prestige; their secession would be a painful blow.
But beyond the problems of personalities and political tactics, The Third Way faces a deeper crisis – a crisis of identity.
The movement was created in 1994, in a blaze of media coverage and public sympathy, when it seemed that Rabin was about to close a land-for-peace deal with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Men such as Shomron and Zamir, who stand outside of the political hurly-burly, added their voices to those of Labor hawks such as Kahalani and Zismann in challenging Rabin’s apparent readiness to cede the Golan in return for a full peace with Syria.
Kahalani, who as a tank brigade commander conducted one of the bloodiest – and most brilliant – defensive battles on the Golan during the first, terrible days of the Yom Kippur War, stood at the head of a nationwide campaign against the contemplated Golan withdrawal.
Anti-withdrawal activists – both party politicians and local settlement leaders – calculated that the legend of Kahalani’s martial exploits would be the most effective vehicle to convey their message of steadfastness to the general public.
They were probably right.
Kahalani’s smiling but tough-looking eyes stared out at Israelis from myriad newspaper ads, television and cinema commercials, and thousands of billboards across the country.
According to opinion polls, a steady, though not large, majority of the Israeli public rejected the total withdrawal scenario.
Had the issue been brought to a referendum – as Rabin has pledged to do before signing a deal with Syria – the government could by no means have been certain of victory.
As the movement grew, it sought to carve out a position for itself – a “third way” – between the government and the rightist opposition to the peace process, or at least to its pace.
Although Kahalani and Zismann voted against the Interim Agreement in the Knesset, the movement was not committed to a “Greater Israel,” a vision championed by right-wing politicians and settlement leaders.
Instead, The Third Way favored some sort of territorial compromise – though short of what it felt were the too-sweeping concessions offered by the Rabin government.
The Third Way’s problem now, however, is that it might have succeeded in its main and original purpose – mounting public opposition to a Golan withdrawal – leaving it with the possibility that there may no longer be sufficient uniqueness in its other positions to support its continued existence.
Whether because of the profound and articulate ambivalence of the Israeli public over ceding the Golan, or for other reasons, the peace talks with Syria seem to have ground to a complete halt. This leaves those opposed to a withdrawal from the Golan with little about which to campaign for now.
For his part, Rabin assured President Clinton in October that his government still desired to negotiate a peace treaty with Syria and with Damascus’s neighbor and client-state, Lebanon.
But a growing number of commentators in Israel are now suggesting that Rabin and his Cabinet have enough on their political plate with the ongoing implementation of her latest Palestinian accord. As it enters an election year, the Rabin government can do without the additional controversy and strife that a land-for-peace deal with Syria would inevitably trigger.
For The Third Way, this should be excellent news.
But the news may also leave The Third Way as a newborn party without an ideological lifeline.
Some Third Way activists are jealously eyeing other middle-ground groupings that have announced their intention to fight in the upcoming election.
David Levy, the longtime Likud leader who broke away from his party earlier this year, has always cultivated a dual message: relative moderation on defense and foreign policy issues, and a firm, radical position on social questions.
Natan Sharansky, who plans to run at the head of an immigrant list, plainly has a ready-made platform available – the needs and rights of olim – that is not going to fade away because of any extraneous diplomatic developments.
Still, disaffection is always present in pro-government ranks at the end of a term, and The Third Way hopes to pick up former Labor voters who are not prepared to back the party again this time.
The movement might also look for common ground with Levy, and even with Sharansky, with a view to amalgamating their followers into a sizable “third force.”
But those decisions are for the future.
For now, The Third Way is looking for a way to ensure that it reaches those decisions with its leadership echelon still intact.
One wag – apparently a Likud supporter, though he did not identify himself – plainly questions The Third Way’s continued reason for being.
In a huge painted poster over a road-bridge this week at the southern entrance to Tel Aviv, he declared: “There is no third way – it’s either Bibi or Tibi.”
“Bibi” is the nickname of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab doctor who serves as Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s political adviser, has founded a new Israeli-Arab party that will run in the next election on a pro-peace platform.