• Lebanon
  • August 17, 2006
  • 4 minutes read

Searching for a new direction

The war against Hizbullah has levelled the political landscape of “Israel” almost as completely as it has the physical landscape of southern Lebanon. It has severely damaged, probably beyond repair, the consensus which has shaped the middle ground of Israeli politics since the failure of the Oslo peace process. That consensus, as developed by Ariel Sharon and offered in full-blown form as “realignment” to the Israeli public by a new political party in the general elections earlier this year, had three main elements. The first was that holding on to most of the occupied territories was not in “Israel’s” interests, that withdrawal was therefore necessary, but that it would have to be done unilaterally, since there was no reliable negotiating partner on the Arab side. The second was that “Israel” could be much more easily defended once the huge and demanding tasks of patrolling the territories and protecting far-flung settlers had been greatly reduced in scale. The third was that, as military costs were cut, more attention and money could be devoted to repairing the welfare state, improving education and health provision, and reducing social inequalities in Israeli society.
This was the programme which the new party, Kadima, and its new leader, Ehud Olmert, who took over when Sharon was removed from the scene by ill-health, offered Israeli voters in March and which some other parties, including the Labour party, endorsed. The war has put all this in doubt. It has discredited the concept of withdrawal without negotiation by demonstrating that unless you have a contract for peace with those to whom you are ceding territory, you have no guarantee they will not continue to attack you. It has discredited the idea that such attacks from ceded territories, if they came, could be swiftly and relatively painlessly dealt with by the Israeli armed forces moving rapidly back in to deal out punishment. Lebanon showed that, while they can of course move back in, it is a costly and contentious business. The report this week of a committee set up before the war to study realignment reinforces these conclusions, pointing to the contradiction between leaving without a peace deal and expecting peaceable behaviour. The West Bank, it says, could become a rocket launching pad bigger than either Gaza or Lebanon if “Israel” leaves.
Finally, the war has discredited the comfortable notion that there is going to be more money for social policy. The one-off costs of Lebanon will be high, the ongoing costs of a heightened security posture are likely to be considerable. The Israeli economy is prospering at the moment, so the squeeze on social policy may not be crippling, but a realignment “dividend” is no longer on the cards.
A paralyzing effect on Israeli politics is already manifest. Quite apart from doubts about the future of particular individuals, notably Olmert, the Labour leader Amir Peretz and the Israeli Army chief of staff Dan Halutz, it seems highly unlikely that Olmert or anybody else can now swing the Israeli public behind a policy of withdrawal from the West Bank. Under these pressures, Olmert’s party could split, or even disappear as quickly as it appeared. But the political bankruptcy the war has revealed is not confined to Kadima. Neither Likud, with its unviable policy of continued full occupation, nor Labour, compromised at least for the moment by its association with the Lebanon war, can offer a way out of these dilemmas.
The unhappy results of the Lebanon campaign might be counterbalanced if peace with Syria is pursued seriously, but that would not solve the problem of Gaza and the West Bank. The truth “Israel” will sooner or later have to face is that negotiation with the Palestinians, however unpromising and distasteful it may appear to many Israelis, and however much may have to be put on the table to give it a chance, will have to be tried again.