On this coming Independence Day, Israel will celebrate its 58th birthday, and one doesn't have to believe in numerology to notice an interesting symmetry: the period can be divided exactly in half - 29 years under the rule of Labor-Mapai, and another 29 years equally divided between Likud and Labor rule, years which ranged from bitter competition to cooperation via national unity governments.
Now Israel is entering a new political era, which we can call the "Third Republic." The illness of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hastened the process. Had he been healthy and won the elections as expected, the change would have been less significant than that experienced over the past three weeks. Almost imperceptibly, the country's leadership has undergone a change in personalities and generations. The security-conscious leaders, who were forged in the pre-state underground movements and on the battlefield, have given way to a young generation of citizen-politicians who are heading a new ruling party. The result is that the upcoming elections are seen as a national referendum to confirm a revolution that already has taken place de facto.
Historically speaking, the changing of Israeli political eras have been primarily influenced by wars. The First Republic, led by David Ben-Gurion, arose during the 1948 War of Independence as the successor to the Jewish yishuv of the British Mandatory period. The Second Republic, led by Menahem Begin, was born from the trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and during all the years of its existence it was torn between returning and occupying the territories. The first was characterized by the "eraser" (of color from TV broadcasts), large national projects and the centralized economy, the second by immigration from Russia, high-tech millionaires and opening up to the world. The first provided answers and belief in government, and the second is leaving behind mainly questions and doubts.
The intifada etched into Israeli awareness the assessment that the usual solutions - occupation and settlement, or a treaty with the Palestine Liberation Organization - just complicate the conflict. The agonies of the war against the Palestinians gave rise to the Third Israeli Republic, which arose on the ruins of Gush Katif. Its founder, Sharon, was a survivor from the days of Ben-Gurion who played a key role in two revolutions: he initiated the founding of the Likud, which made the first revolution possible, and eventually he disbanded it. It is doubtful whether anyone else would have had the political power and courage to do so. But Sharon did not get to see the results of his actions: the seventh floor of Hadassah University Hospital became his Mt. Nevo.
What will the Third Republic do? It is mainly expected to try to close the open files bequeathed to it by its predecessors. To determine the borders of Israel in the east, with the Palestinians and the Syrians, and to hasten Israel's joining the international community as a normal member; to reabsorb the settlers who will be evacuated from the West Bank, without exacerbating the tension between Jews and Arabs within the Green Line; to establish a more stable and effective regime, and perhaps even a constitution, and to offer an attractive economic and social future to young people in order to combat the temptation of globalization.
The challenge facing Kadima is not simple. It must show initiative and think big, like the historical Mapai, without the centralized tools that were at Ben-Gurion's disposal. The release from the bonds of party institutions and central committee members are beneficial for now, and are refreshing the political ranks, but eventually, Kadima will have to establish institutions if it wants to survive.
Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and their colleagues will have to convince us during the next two months that they are capable of this huge mission. The public, according to the surveys, is willing to give them credit, and prefers Kadima to the parties that insist on preserving the old political order. And then, on March 29, the real test of fulfilling the great expectations will come.
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