TEL AVIV — For the first time since Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel on Feb. 7, 2001, his policies will be put to the test by the Israeli public and world opinion. Having come to power on promises of bringing peace and security to Israel, he has subsequently tried to hint that despite his brilliant ideas, he is constantly being stymied by his coalition partners in the Labor Party. Mr. Sharon continues to imply that he is forced to sacrifice his effective plans for the lofty ideal of "national unity."
The national unity government in Israel was wrong from the start, though many Israelis have tried to deny this. After most of the highest ranking Knesset members from the Labor Party had resigned from the Knesset or refused to serve in a government under Mr. Sharon, most of the Labor Party ministers who entered the government were a group of backbenchers headed by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a group determined not to give up its rare and unexpectedly elevated share of power.
For Mr. Sharon, this was a real lifesaver, since the political right does not have a majority in the Knesset and, without a coalition, he cannot govern. Shimon Peres's surprising willingness to act as foreign minister in such a government gave Mr. Sharon a coalition majority and, more to the point, legitimacy for a string of actions that undermined, stage by stage, all elements of the peace process that had been painstakingly built by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Peres himself in the 1990's. The result is that Palestinian-Israeli relations have reached their lowest point since the Six-Day War in 1967.
There was no genuine meeting of interests behind the unity government. It did not manage to provide any problem-solving approach that could bring together the left and right. Instead, Mr. Sharon managed to drag the Labor Party into the gradual escalation of the conflict with the Palestinians (who did not sit idly by, and gave him plenty of fuel for the fire), while Labor's great "triumph" was its efforts, at the occasional government meeting, to prevent Mr. Sharon from taking even more extreme measures. The truth, incidentally, is that in most cases it was the United States government that acted to prevent particularly extreme measures.
The disbanding of the government was inevitable and healthy. The pretext for the dissolution — disagreement over approval of the national budget — was of secondary importance, not unlike the small disputes that can be the cause of divorce in an unsuitable marriage. But it is a pity that for 20 months, the Israeli public has been paying the price for the absence of an opposition force in the Israeli parliamentary regime. In that time, they have come to live with fading hopes of peace, the result of which has been the weakest economy in a decade.
The new political situation, however, creates new and encouraging possibilities. If Mr. Sharon manages to form a narrow, right-wing government, he will no longer be able to claim that he is being held back by Labor's peace camp. He will then have to prove at last whether, after dictating the supposedly logical formula of "no negotiations under fire" and using that position to veto negotiations with any gun owner in the Middle East, he is actually capable of bringing peace and security to Israel.
Should it be that he does indeed have a security plan that is full of original solutions and can be implemented, then public opinion will surely reward him in the next general elections in 2003. But if Mr. Sharon's true agenda is revealed, and it turns out — as I believe it will — that he has no solution whatsoever, other than living from day to day and putting off the moment of truth for as long as he possibly can, then it is almost certain that he will pay the price in the next elections.
And as far as the Labor Party is concerned, it cannot go to the next elections under the leadership of the group that has supported Mr. Sharon for the last 20 months. In this month's vote for the next leader of the Labor Party, it is vital that a candidate advocating peace be elected, someone who can present a genuine alternative to the present policy of paying lip service to any solution put forward (the Mitchell Report, the Tenet Plan, President Bush's vision as laid out in his speech on June 24 and the Bush administration's new "road map," recently presented to the two sides) with no intention of implementing it.
The alternative plan presented by the Labor Party must make one promise, loud and clear: During its next term in government, the border between Israel and the Palestinian state will be determined, thus guaranteeing Israel's future as a democratic Jewish nation. All efforts will be devoted, during the first year of the government, to reaching an agreed solution with the Palestinian Authority (without any preconditions as to who its leader will be, and without giving the terrorist organizations the opportunity to stop negotiations through violence).
And if such efforts should fail, then Israel will carry out a unilateral withdrawal to borders that Israel itself shall determine, including a full withdrawal from Gaza and the vast majority of the West Bank, with evacuation of all the settlements in those areas from which it withdraws.
If this is the basis for the elections in Israel to be held next year, then new hope will arise for change in the Middle East — after two years of Palestinian violence, Israeli retaliation, hundreds of Israeli victims, thousands of Palestinian victims and the fatalistic view, however unjustified, that the right to live in peace is not to be granted to the inhabitants of the Middle East.