Sharon’s Gamble May Steal The Center

Ariel Sharon’s breathtaking gamble on leaving the political party that he himself founded decades earlier may have paid off. It appears that Shimon Peres, recently booted from his leadership post in the Labor party, may join Sharon in Kadima and take a large swath of his followers along with him. The two moves threaten to completely rewrite Israeli politics and shove what had been the two largest political parties into the extremist wings of the Israeli electoral culture:

Speculation mounted Tuesday that Shimon Peres, the longtime pillar of Israel’s Labor Party, plans to break ranks and join Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s new centrist movement.
The departure of Peres, 82, from Labor, which Sharon allies speculated could come Wednesday, would continue a broad realignment of Israel’s political parties prompted by Sharon’s decision to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip earlier this year. …
Peres’s ally, Dalia Itzik, a member of Labor’s 21-person parliamentary bloc, announced that she would join Sharon. She is the second Labor member of parliament to do so after Haim Ramon, who announced his decision last week.
“It looks like a package deal,” Eitan Cabel, the Labor Party’s secretary general, told Israel’s Army Radio. “We spoke about their remaining and not defecting to another party. But apparently things were already sealed, and the talks with us were nothing but a smoke screen.”

Perhaps Sharon had this already in the works when he announced the launch of Kadima, but either way, it shows the demand for a more centrist representation in Israel while the question of the Palestinians remain open. In his manner, Sharon has taken a page from Bill Clinton and especially Tony Blair in building a so-called Third Way, this time in Israeli politics. Most Israelis want to see peace and would trade land for it, but only if that can assure an end to the constant state of war that the occupation has created. Now with Peres and his followers backing Sharon and joining with him to push his policies and strategems, the centrists have a home for themselves.
Peres had little choice and so a move to Kadima makes a lot of sense. He had just lost control of Labor to a far-left, hard-line union supporter who backs the two-state solution but also wide-ranging social spending. Sharon, on the other hand, had largely beaten back a challenge for Likud supremacy from Benjamin Netanyahu. In one or two move, Sharon has now created a political structure in Israel where both Netanyahu and Amir Peretz get left alone at the extremes while Kadima can define the center of Israeli politics. The union of the two old titans of Israeli government will provide an instant legitimacy that could well sway a majority to support Kadima in the upcoming elections.
If Kadima cannot form a majority government, however, look for Labor to fill the gap — and they will want to exact some revenge on the Peres group when they do.