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Israelis ask, ‘Where’s the left?

Peace Now followers demonstrate outside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s official residence in Jerusalem on May 17. (Brian Hendler)

Peace Now followers demonstrate outside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s official residence in Jerusalem on May 17. (Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV, June 16 (JTA) — Yair Sultan leaned back in a rat-eaten chair at the illegal settlement outpost of Beit El East. Gently stroking the settlement’s puppy, he philosophized on the importance of the soon-to-be-dismantled West Bank encampment. “It’s the left,” Sultan said with disdain after concluding a monologue about how “the left is behind” the outpost evacuations. With a decidedly right-wing government in place, the conspiracy theories of the settlers, who blame a nebulous “left” for many of their woes, may have proven true in a roundabout way: Many say the policies of the left have won the day when even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon backs the establishment of a Palestinian state, blasts the “occupation” and orders the evacuation of settlements. But where is the left? That’s the question many Israelis are asking. “In suspended animation,” answers Yaron Ezrahi, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. Ezrahi says the left has ceased squabbling over whether former Prime Minster Ehud Barak gave Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat the “ultimate offer” in peace talks in 2000. Instead, it’s focusing on how quietly to push Israel into embracing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To do that, Ezrahi says, leftists concluded they would have to “give the right-wing coalition the opportunity to test its policies and spectacularly fail. And I think the left believes that is what happened.” Despite Sharon’s tough rhetoric, Israel’s military crackdowns have not ended terrorism, the country is resuming negotiations with the Palestinians and many settlements have been put on the chopping block, Ezrahi notes. Not that the left had much choice in the matter. The left-wing Meretz party and the center-left Labor suffered humiliating defeats in last January’s elections, winning only about 20 percent of the Knesset’s seats. With his overwhelming success at the polls, Sharon knew he had the right wing in his pocket. Now, by veering leftward, he has managed to reach what few Israeli leaders since David Ben-Gurion have achieved: a consensus of the centrist Israeli public. According to a poll conducted for the daily Yediot Achronot by the Dahaf Center, two-thirds of Israelis believe Israel is harmed by the “occupation,” a term Sharon whipped out of his rhetorical deck only two weeks ago. At the same time, a majority of respondents said they believe Sharon will honor the “road map” peace plan, if only because of overwhelming American pressure. Yet Sharon’s about-face has come at a price to his credibility: Only 54 percent of Israelis believe Sharon is trustworthy or relatively so, down from 74 percent a year ago, the poll found. About 40 percent of respondents said they believe Sharon ordered last week’s botched hit on Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi in order to torpedo the road map — this, despite Israel’s claim that intelligence assessments recommended the attack and the army’s work dismantling illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank in accordance with the road map. Regardless of his reasoning, Sharon seems to have saved Peace Now. When the former patron of the settlement movement called Israel’s rule over the Palestinians “occupation,” it removed the stigma that had engulfed Peace Now since the intifada began, said the group’s acting director, Yariv Oppenheimer. Peace Now activists are beginning to reawaken to a new era. Their grandiose visions of a “new Middle East” have been swept away and replaced by a more prosaic approach wherein quitting the territories is portrayed as something to be done “for the sake of Israel,” Oppenheimer said. “Our backs are now straightened and activists are coming out of the so-called closet to support us,” he said, referring to a recent 1,000-person rally in Jerusalem that included Palestinian activists. Despite an opening for the grassroots left, Israel’s left-wing political parties remain moribund. Political veterans Shimon Peres and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer are struggling for control of Labor, while politicians who were supposed to be the party’s rising stars — such as Haim Ramon, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Avraham Burg — have failed to rise. A poll released by the Prime Minister’s Office and published by Army Radio indicated that if elections were held this week, Labor would win only 8-12 Knesset seats, a fall of nearly two-thirds from its position of power just four years ago. According to longstanding leftists, Labor’s participation in the national unity government during Sharon’s first term damaged the party. “How could we criticize the stagnation of the peace process when one its founding fathers, Peres, sat near Sharon at the Cabinet table doing absolutely nothing?” one Labor veteran asked. Even a silent and squabbling Labor Party in the opposition is better than an emasculated one stuck in a national unity government with Likud, the veteran said. Adding to Labor’s problems is Sharon’s success at making himself the man of the hour. The future of the left is “linked with the fact that the alternative to Sharon looks so miserable. There is really no obvious candidate to inherit Sharon’s position,” Ezrahi said. Even on the right, Ezrahi noted, Sharon has succeeded in weakening another potential heir, Benjamin Netanyahu, by painting him into a far-right-wing corner. Without a strong left and with a diluted right in Israel, Ezrahi said, “We have negotiations between a party that lost its power” — the Palestinian Authority — “and the party that lost its ideology,” the Likud.

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