For thirty years the Israel Labor Party was the Israeli partner of Washington in negotiating peace with the Arabs. The partnership began with the Nixon administration in 1969 when Secretary of State William Rogers tried to negotiate a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement by getting Israel to commit to withdraw completely from all the Sinai and the West Bank. Rogers was in touch with Nasser's government in Cairo and King Hussein's in Amman, but not with the Syrian government in Damascus. Israel demurred with the secret support of both President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Rogers had been given the Middle East as a harmless issue to play with while Kissinger dealt with Vietnam, the Soviet Union and China. In August 1970 Rodgers managed to negotiate a ceasefire ending the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel, which Cairo promptly violated by moving SAMs up to the Suez Canal.
From 1973 to 1975 it was Labor that was the Israeli partner to Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy. Kissinger dealt with Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin and with Defense Ministers Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, and Foreign Ministers Abba Eban and Yigal Allon. All except Peres are now long dead and Peres is no longer in the Labor Party, having been elected president from Kadima. Labor demonstrated its basic characteristics in the peace process: unable to start initiatives but able to act and come up with solutions under pressure. This was generally due to the influence of Dayan. Labor was ready to make concessions in the Sinai but not on the West Bank, and King Hussein was too weak politically to demand less than the total return of the West Bank.
From 1977 to 1984 Labor was out of power, but it was Labor's votes in the Knesset that helped to pass the Camp David accords in 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979 when key Herut members of Likud either abstained or voted against. Most of the negotiating for the peace process during this time was done by former Labor minister Moshe Dayan as foreign minister and future Labor minister as defense minister.
It was Labor under the leadership of Peres and with Rabin as defense minister that managed Israel's withdrawal from all but the narrow security zone in Lebanon in 1984-85.
And of course it was Labor--again under the leadership of Rabin and Peres--that initiated the Oslo process with the PLO in 1993. This didn't work out so well either because Arafat had no intention from the start of making concessions on either of the two main issues--refugees and Jerusalem--or because he felt Hamas prevented him from doing so. In 2000 Barak showed his strengths and weaknesses. He balked at honoring the "Rabin deposit" of withdrawing from all of the Golan in early 2000 in exchange for normalization. And then at Camp David he went beyond any previous Israeli government in proposing concessions to the Palestinians. Barak ended with a failure to make peace and a failed political career that he has now attempted to revive by carefully aligning himself with his former army subordinate, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Now Labor is left in single digits in the Knesset for the first time in its history, and as a midsize rather than a major party. The only hope for salvation is Kadima, the bastard child of the Likud fathered by Sharon who was himself a child partly of the Mapai tradition. But before I examine Kadima, I want to look at the precedents for a party of the Right making peace in native-settler conflicts. There are three.
In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk surprised the world and many within his own National Party by announcing that he was freeing the Rivonia trialists (Mandela et al) from prison, unbanning the liberation movements and preparing to enter into negotiations about the future of the country with them. He did this in response to two stimulae. The first were the economic trade sanctions voted by both the European Economic Community, forerunner of today's European Union, and by the U.S. Congress. The second was that the peace agreement signed in Brazzaville in December 1988 forced Angola to expel the ANC's military camps from its country along with the Cubans in exchange for Namibian independence. The National Party and South Africa were at a position of strength and he had learned from the Rhodesian experience that it is better to negotiate from a position of strength. By the late spring of 1994 South Africa experienced majority rule elections. De Klerk knew that to wait until the blacks were strong enough to drive the whites from power would have meant leaving the Afrikaner people with a ruined national home, ruined by decades of internal strife and economic sanctions.
In Northern Ireland the Democratic Unionists of Ian Paisley in late 2006 agreed to power sharing with Sinn Fein after the IRA had finally decommissioned its arms in September 2005. Paisley was basically agreeing to the Good Friday Agreement with very minor modifications, which the rival Ulster Unionists had done all the heavy lifting for over five years. Neither the conditions of South Africa or Northern Ireland yet apply to Israel.
The third example is that of the dominant Fianna Fail party in the Republic of Ireland. This party ruled for 60 out of the 78 years between its first coming to power in 1932 and the present. In 1937 the party's leader, Eamon de Valera, was responsible for writing a new constitution that claimed the entire island of Ireland for the country. Lip service to a united Ireland and to reviving the Irish language were standards of Fianna Fail's election appeals along with an economic pragmatism. In the 1990s Fianna Fail helped to sponsor the Northern Ireland peace process and agreed to amend its constitution to end the territorial claim to Northern Ireland in exchange for power sharing in the province and a North-South dimension. The constitution was duly amended in December 1999 after power sharing was implemented in Belfast. Fianna Fail has in common with the Likud (and Kadima) paramilitary roots, irredentism, a princes phenomenon, a position of dominance in the political system, and a history of corruption.
Kadima demonstrated last year that it is split almost evenly between supporters of leader Tzipi Livni and former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. It is the third and most recent centrist party cobbled together from elements of the two main parties and prominent non-politicos from the civilian world. The first, the Democratic Movement for Change, lasted less than five years--formed in 1976 it split in 1978 and its main wing folded in 1980. The second, the Center Party, lasted from 1999 to 2003. Kadima has outlived both partly because he received many more seats than either: 29 in 2006 compared to 15 for Dash in 1977 and 7 for the Center Party in 1999. Kadima could easily split in two or disintegrate completely with much of its Knesset caucus returning to the Likud. In 2009 its electorate seems to have switched from Sharon supporters in 2006 to many Labor supporters. But Labor and Meretz are both too weak to serve as viable coalition partners for Kadima. Kadima needs the Likud as a partner. Such a centrist coalition depends on the results of the next election and how much the Likud can continue to evolve under Netanyahu.