In 1975, Ariel Sharon was an adviser to the then-inexperienced prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The episode lasted only eight months; Sharon quickly realized that the position provided him with little opportunity to influence policy, and, after battling some other operatives, he quit. When he left, one of the few achievements he could point to was a report he submitted to Rabin recommending vast changes to Israel's system of government: moving toward the separate, direct election of the prime minister and forming a smaller and more reliable government, a government that would be more obedient, since it would be nominated personally by the prime minister, like the relationship between the U.S. president and his Cabinet.
Years passed before Sharon got to see some elements of his plan materialize, and many proved to be harmful. After voting for the prime minister they thought most suitable, Israeli citizens felt free to elect to parliament the party that catered to their exact needs—as trivial or bizarre as they might be—polarizing the political arena even further. So, after three direct elections for prime minister, the system was changed again, but the basic agonizing reality of the Israeli prime minister did not improve. The current Israeli system puts power in the hands of individual members of the Knesset, enabling marginal groups of political activists to influence policy in ways contrary to the public's desires. Almost all Israeli leaders of recent years have lived under the constant badgering of "rebel" ministers or party members. Now Sharon is suffering at the hands of the rebels, but 10 years ago he was a rebel himself, making life miserable for then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Israeli politics is like a drunken eagle, looking for a rock to land on. This is, for the most part, the reason Israel is now heading toward its third election cycle in five years. Sharon is a popular leader who was unable to control his own party. He got to be a centrist and disengage from the Gaza Strip, but the hard-core Likud activists stayed on the right.
The real issue at stake now might be the system, not the substance. In forming a new party—some call it a dream team, others a party of last resort—like the government he envisioned in 1975, Sharon has created a completely new arena for speculation and maneuvering. A new field for fantasy.
Sharon will celebrate his 80th birthday in less than two years, and he will probably not run again, so his new party is in danger of being dismantled after only one stint in government (as has happened to many Israeli centrist parties before). But it also presents a rare opportunity: changing Israel's political culture, getting rid of the old habit of too many parties and too many election cycles, and creating an atmosphere in which two of the three big parties—Labor on the left, Likud on the right, and the new one in the middle—will form governments for years to come. Stabilizing Israeli politics is an achievement worth exploring, whether you're a pro-disengagement voter or a right-wing hack.
And the outcome of the election is also of some importance. If the polls are to be trusted, a Sharon-Labor coalition is the most likely outcome, enabling the next government to dismantle more settlements but carrying the seeds of a future rift between centrist Sharon and left-winger Amir Peretz, the new Labor leader. Sharon does not trust the Arabs and will pursue unilateral steps; Peretz is an "Oslo Accords" disciple who aims for multilateral agreements with the Palestinian Authority.
And, as has happened before, much of the outcome of the Israeli elections depends on events in its backyard. The Palestinian parliamentary elections, slated a mere six weeks before Israel's, might influence Israeli voters more than it is customary to acknowledge. Terror attacks, or the Palestinian Authority's inability to act against terror groups, might convince them to turn right, once again proving the polls to be inaccurate—as happened to Shimon Peres in 1996, when he lost to Benjamin Netanyahu after a series of suicide-bomb attacks.
The American political operative and philanthropist Bernard Baruch once said that people should vote "for the man who promises least; he'll be the least disappointing." The candidate who promises least to the Israeli voter is Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Whatever he makes of his promises, Abbas will have a great impact on whether this upcoming Israeli election is decided on substance or system.