The Likud Party’s list of Knesset candidates, chosen in a party primary this week, left Ariel Sharon’s campaign strategists scratching their heads.
With national elections approaching on Jan. 28, they had meticulously laid out a centrist strategy in which the prime minister directs moderate peace messages at the large reservoir of floating voters between Labor and Likud, who take a tough line on security but believe in the possibility of a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians one day.
It is in the battle for the centrists that Israeli elections are won and lost, experts say.
The problem for Sharon’s spin doctors is that the list of Knesset candidates elected by the Likud’s 3,000-strong Central Committee on Sunday leans heavily toward the hawks.
In contrast, the Labor Party, which also voted for its Knesset list this week, shoved the doves to the back of the line and promoted the party’s centrists.
In addition to determining which politicians are likely to rise to prominence after the elections, the lists may help determine whether Israel is led by another unity government or whether its next government will tilt strongly toward one side of the political map.
In Likud, all nine of the top spots after Sharon are occupied by people opposed to President Bush’s "road map" to peace and Palestinian statehood, which Sharon says he supports. Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who finished at the top of the Central Committee poll behind the assured spots for Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, described the outcome as "a vote against a Palestinian state."
That kind of talk hardly helps Sharon’s strategists project a credible centrist message.
Labor Party strategists, on the other hand, were delighted at the Knesset slate the party’s 110,000 members chose on Monday.
Centrists like ex-generals Matan Vilnai, Efraim Sneh and Danny Yatom finished high on the list.
The party’s most dovish figures — Yossi Beilin, one of the chief architects of the Oslo peace process; Yael Dayan, a leading women’s advocate; former Peace Now leader Tsali Reshef; and Haifa lawyer Yossi Katz — all were relegated to bottom spots, with little hope of winning Knesset seats. On Wednesday, Beilin and Dayan quit the Labor ranks to run on the list of the leftist Meretz Party.
Taken together, the composition of the Labor and Likud lists makes it easier for Labor to fight for the center ground.
Indeed, according to Ma’ariv columnist Dan Margalit, Labor leader Amram Mitzna could hardly have asked for a better slate — from the Likud.
"Mitzna may not be able to prove that Sharon doesn’t mean what he says" about wanting to negotiate peace on the basis of the Bush plan, Margalit wrote. "But he will be able to say to the public that even if Sharon is sincere, he won’t be able to deliver."
Writing in Yediot Achronot, political analyst Sima Kadmon also suggested that Sharon would not be able to deliver peace — unless he formed another national unity government with Labor as a counterweight to his own party.
"Unless Sharon gets a strong Labor Party with which he can form a coalition on the basis of real partnership, the fate of his peace initiative has already been sealed," Kadmon wrote. "With Likud hawks like Tzachi Hanegbi, Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat, Dan Naveh and Yisrael Katz, there is no Palestinian state, no evacuation of settlements, no Bush road map."
Campaign strategist Eyal Arad acknowledged that Sharon is aiming for the center ground, and suggested that his trump card will be Sharon’s close coordination with the United States on the Palestinian issue.
In early December, at a conference on Israel’s national security, Sharon reiterated his support for President Bush’s plan for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
The timing and the message had been carefully chosen: Sharon was laying the first major building block for his two-pronged campaign, against both the parties to his right and Mitzna’s Labor on his left.
"The Israeli public realizes that any divergence from the Bush plan is not in the Israeli interest," Arad said. "In a year and a half, we have managed to reach understanding with the U.S. on the tiniest details, and any divergence will hurt our relations with Washington."
The implication is that Sharon is not only ready to make peace, but can do so in full coordination with Washington — whereas Mitzna’s plan, which includes the possibility of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip even without a peace agreement, would not have American sanction.
Labor leaders dismissed the Sharon statement as electioneering. Haim Ramon, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, called it an "election trap."
Sharon, he says, has absolutely no intention of negotiating Palestinian statehood or evacuating Jewish settlements. On the other hand, he says, Mitzna would make a real effort to negotiate peace — and, once elected, also would coordinate his plans with the Americans.
Sharon’s problems with Likud’s Knesset list lie not only in winning the centrist vote from Labor. He has far fewer supporters in high places on the list than does his archrival, Netanyahu. Some confidants say that could restrict Sharon’s freedom of action — for example, in forming a coalition with Labor, rather than the far- right, if Likud wins the elections.
Netanyahu says he won’t use his camp to undermine Sharon’s chances in the election — but after that, Netanyahu warned, how he acts will depend on what Sharon does. In other words, if Netanyahu is denied a top ministry in a new Sharon government, Sharon could face a mini-rebellion is his own party.
Despite the elation of Mitzna’s campaign strategists over the party’s election list, the Labor leader faces a similar problem. Most of the top people on the list are supporters of the former party leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. They could push Mitzna into joining a coalition with Sharon on terms he would rather reject, or even chip away at his leadership within Labor.
And there is another problem with the Labor list: The demotion of party doves could lead left-wing voters, who had been drawn to Mitzna’s clear-cut positions about peace, to think again. Some might shift their allegiance from Labor to Meretz.
But the bottom line is this: Even if Labor does manage to recapture some of the center ground from the Likud, Sharon is still the odds-on favorite to retain the premiership in the elections. Though there is still plenty of time until the vote, polls show Likud winning a landslide victory.
As Labor’s Shimon Peres, the doyen of Israeli politicians, shrewdly points out, that means the election is really about the kind of coalition that emerges afterwards. That takes on added significance given the hawkish nature of the Likud list, Peres says. If Labor does well, it will be able to curb the right-wingers in Likud; if not, he warns, they may push Sharon into the arms of the far-right.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.