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Israeli Political Realignment and Prospects for Peace in the Middle East

08 December 2005

Over the past month, Israel has witnessed enormous political change and a realignment of its major political parties. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left the conservative Likud Party to form Kadima, a new centrist party, which is favored to win in the upcoming March election. On Wednesday, the acting leader of Likud, Tsahi Hanegbi, quit and joined Mr. Sharon’s new party. Amir Peretz, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco, defeated veteran politician Shimon Peres for the leadership of the Labor Party, and he then pulled out of Israel’s governing coalition. Last week Mr. Peres left the Labor Party to join Prime Minister Sharon’s new centrist faction.

Nathan Guttman, Washington bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post, described this realignment as the “big bang” of Israeli politics. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Guttman said it is widely accepted as a positive move by the Israeli public and Israeli media. Most important, he noted, is that there is a wide-ranging consensus for the formation of a Palestinian state and a recognition that not all Israeli settlements will remain under Israel’s control after the final status accord. According to Mr. Guttman, if Prime Minister Sharon is reelected in March, he will probably go for a long-term interim agreement, which will redraw the border along the separation barrier, or wall. And this would leave the major settlement blocs in the West Bank under Israeli control.

Many Palestinians agree that the formation of a new centrist party in Israel represents a positive development. But Palestinian analyst Khalid Jashan is not so sure. He said that, by Mr. Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, he sent a very clear message to the world that the age of bilateral negotiations was over. According to Mr. Jashan, Prime Minister Sharon has been consistent in advocating a return of only about 40 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians for their future state.

Palestinian journalist Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent with al-Arabiya television, agreed that Palestinians both expect and fear that Mr. Sharon will try to impose a unilateral settlement on the West Bank as he did on Gaza. And she said that only the United States has enough political clout to pressure both sides to negotiate.

However, Nathan Guttman of the Jerusalem Post said the bottom line of the Israeli political realignment is that the Israeli people no long support a “Greater Israel.” And they understand that there will eventually be a two-state solution.

Nevertheless, much uncertainty lies ahead. Palestinian parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 25, and Israelis go to the polls in a general election on March 28.

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