- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

TEL AVIV — The imminent announcement of a new coalition government with the Likud and Labor parties signals the triumph of an unlikely partnership between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres — the grand old men of Israeli politics.

Though both have served as ideological beacons to opposing extremes in Israeli politics — Mr. Sharon, 76, as the darling of the Israeli right, and Mr. Peres, 81, as champion of the left — the coupling is one of two leaders who have grown more pragmatic with age.

The union also represents the frustration of the long-held visions of Israeli hawks and doves alike and a convergence of public support around the imperfect solution of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, analysts say.

“There’s an element of shattered idealism in that neither of them have come to believe that the vision most associated with their respective personas will ever come true,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

“Neither of them believe that [withdrawing from Gaza] will usher in 100 years of peace, but all realize for pragmatic reasons … that this step is necessary for Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state. That factor unites them.”

The partnership also reflects a way out of the enduring gridlock of a political system that punishes leaders who offer ambitious initiatives on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Although Mr. Sharon was elected with an unprecedented plurality, his initial center-right coalition melted away as he pushed forward the disengagement plan.

The unity government makes it easier for both leaders to face challenges from upstarts in their respective parties — even though they may not share the same ultimate vision for Israeli-Arab peacemaking.

“The two of them can’t agree maybe on the final borders of Israel,” Mr. Makovsky said, “but they find common ground on the need to get out of Gaza and realizing that the Israeli political system — for a variety of factors — requires common action to achieve this goal.”

For all their political rivalries, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Peres have followed symmetrical career paths that make them surprisingly compatible, observers say.

Both began their public careers under the mentorship of Israel’s founding generation, particularly David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Mr. Peres was a Ben-Gurion political appointee who rose to a top post in the Defense Ministry through his work building Israel’s military industries. Mr. Sharon was promoted through the ranks of the army by generals who were overseen by Mr. Ben-Gurion.

As they pushed their way to the forefront of two opposing camps, both stumbled badly. Mr. Sharon was blamed for Israel’s unpopular foray into Lebanon, while Mr. Peres failed to win an outright election victory for Labor in four tries. But they persevered.

“They were with the founders. Both in their leadership style, their political maneuvering, and their basic understanding of needs for Israel, they are very much alike,” said Labor Party parliament member Yitzhak Herzog. “They were good operators in the party system.”

At various points over the last few decades, each has been dismissed as an ideologue unpalatable to the Israeli center.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Mr. Sharon burnished an image as a territorial maximalist by promoting settlements in the West Bank and Gaza; Mr. Peres, after the 1993 Oslo accords, seemed like a naive dreamer as he spoke of an interdependent Middle East.

While Mr. Peres appealed to the international community, his elite cosmopolitanism never attracted the masses at home. And until his election, Mr. Sharon was seen as a dangerous leader in the back pocket of the settler movement.

Their political eulogies were written and rewritten as a younger generation of leaders like Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak assumed the party leaderships. But when those leaders faltered, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Peres were there to pick up the pieces of their respective parties.

“They enjoy the status of the mega-politicians. People believe that they can pull it off, and they can bring this miracle,” Mr. Herzog said.

“They’ve moved to the center in recent years. I understand what they’re going through. Somehow at this age, perhaps you get a better understanding of Israel in the world.”

The four-year-old Palestinian uprising has helped spur those changes. For Mr. Peres and the peace camp, there came a realization that a warm peace with Israel’s neighbors remains years — if not decades — off. Mr. Sharon came to understand that Israel could not afford to protect every settlement.

The two come from the same generation, face similar political challenges and both have mellowed, but they should never be mistaken for political soul mates.

“It’s like a contract between horse thieves. They’ve stolen horses together in the past. They know all the tricks,” said Hebrew University professor Avraham Diskin. “I’ve heard [Mr. Sharon] say at least three times: ‘There are no friends in politics.’ ”

Rather, the new coalition should be viewed as a mix of political convenience and a sense of national mission about the need to leave Gaza, said Mr. Makovsky.

“They understand that if they don’t swim together, they sink together,” he said. “They have to amputate the arm to save the body, and it’s a sense of emergency that’s brought these two patriotic Israelis to work for a common goal.”

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