Three Rivals Are Off and Running

That's how it goes in Israeli politics: Shimon Peres, who was a candidate to head Labor, left the party the day after he lost to join the rival party, Kadima, which is headed by the man against whom he presumed to run.

That's how it goes in Israeli politics: Shimon Peres, who was a candidate to head Labor, left the party the day after he lost to join the rival party, Kadima, which is headed by the man against whom he presumed to run. Shaul Mofaz, who sought to lead Likud, defected from it after despairing to achieve his goal and hitched his wagon to Kadima, the main rival of his original party. The leaders of Shinui, who were beaten in the party primaries, intend to establish a new movement that will challenge their current political home. Many Israeli politicians circa 2006 are shameless individuals who have shed any semblance of good manners and good taste, and in so doing have coarsened the accepted behavior in the public arena.

The political developments of the past several days illustrate the collapse of the party system. The party is once again not a framework of tradition and of clear identity in which the electorate can find a political home. The parties have become shape-shifting amoebas. The two main schools of political thought that have accompanied the Zionist movement and the state itself for the past 80 years - Labor and Revisionism - are dissolving.

Even in an era in which the local party branches and the business that takes place in them have lost their luster, these two main streams met the political identification needs of large swaths of the population. Even in periods in which ideology made way for personal charisma, the distinction between left and right retained its significance. The public could sort the leaders of Likud and Labor into their respective parties, just as they could distinguish between the paths each one represented.

All of this is melting away in the current election campaign. The familiar leader of the Likud established a new party, bringing with him some of the well-known faces of the mother party. The veteran Labor leader, who has been with the party for more than 60 years, changed his spots. The Likud's list of Knesset candidates, which was made public on Friday, represents a clear right-wing foreign policy line, but its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, denies this. The new Labor chairman, Amir Peretz, ostensibly believes in a foreign policy that is very close, if not identical, to that of Yossi Beilin [of Meretz], while his declared positions reject it. And Kadima, meanwhile, has presented a foreign policy platform that resembles a thick stew with lots of ingredients, so that everyone can find something in it to suit his or her taste.

Even if it were true that in the 21st century political ideology has no significance and that leaders are elected on their image alone, it is irresponsible to accept such a situation in Israel, which desperately needs defined boundaries and a defined identity. As long as the conflict with the Palestinians is not solved, the Israeli voter deserves to decide between clear political alternatives, and the role of the main parties is to present such alternatives.

Labor, Likud and Kadima, for some reason, believe they should use the language of concealment with the voters, and they are not presenting their positions for the electorate's approval.

Here is an attempt to strip off the masks: If Labor becomes the governing party, it will work toward a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians based on a near-total withdrawal to the 1967 Green Line. It will seek to annex a minimal number of West Bank settlements to Israel and might agree to an exchange of territory in return.

Likud trumpets a perpetuation of the status quo in the territories. Thus, if Netanyahu wins the election, he will plan his steps in such a way as to blame the Palestinians for the diplomatic paralysis.

Kadima's positions are difficult to decipher, partly because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not leave any clear directives and partly because Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has still not undergone the test of international pressures. Apparently, Olmert would lead a government under his control to decide on a gradual withdrawal from a significant part of the West Bank, performed in a unilateral manner on the grounds that there is no Palestinian partner for an arrangement on one hand and the current situation cannot continue on the other hand.

If the main parties would only deign to speak to the public openly, the real choices would be laid out before the electorate.