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Say Toda, Bibi!

Krishna Gupta

Over our winter break, a single stroke of misfortune drastically changed the political situation in the most volatile region of the world. The tragic incapacitation of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent shock waves across the globe and left only questions regarding the future of Israeli policy.

For those who have not been following Israeli politics, a brief recap is in order. Sharon, after an initial hawkish ascent to the position of prime minister in 2001, has in the past couple of years adopted more of a middle path filled with the potential for compromise with the Palestinians. His defining action in office, which occured this past August, involved the complete Israeli pullout from the Gaza strip, a move that angered several members of his own hard-line Likud party.

As tensions began to grow within the party in subsequent months, the under-fire Sharon this past November boldly announced the creation of a new centrist party called Kadima, loosely translated as Forward, to which several of his friends and foes defected. This latest maneuver paid off quite well, as the polls predicted Kadima would easily win the elections scheduled for March. But the recent tragedy has put a hold on all of these plans. Sharon was the face of Kadima, and without him, opponent parties can now secretly breathe more comfortably.

There is a distinct chance that the man who will gain the most from Sharon’s removal is one whose name the MIT community should recognize quite well: Benjamin Netanyahu ’75. Indeed, he received an SB in Architecture and an MS in Management from MIT, and then went on to establish an international reputation as a fiery and aggressive leader. He served as prime minister of Israel from 1996–99, and as foreign and finance minister intermittently since then. Now, as a path to the peak of Israel’s political hierarchy opens up, Netanyahu may be well-positioned to return to his position atop the Knesset.

The problem with Netanyahu is that he may well reverse everything Sharon worked so hard recently to gain. Some critics have attacked the Gaza removal as a ploy by Sharon to further delay negotiations for the creation of a Palestinian state for years to come, hence destroying any real chance of peace in the region.

But at this point, who cares? Even if the execution of the Gaza evacuation carried with it hidden, sinister motives, it was crucial to keep the discussion flowing in the right direction. Now, given the compromise, the current leadership has the choice to embark on several paths — and some of them seem to lead to more peaceful times. Netanyahu is a hard-line politician, with little inclination to give an inch to the opposition, chiefly personified by the Palestinians. Netanyahu has previously said, “If they give — they’ll get. If they don’t give — they won’t get.” Will he promote progress, or will he regrettably regress? I have my doubts.

Yet, I am not much in favor of Kadima coming to power. What has defined politics in the Middle East is the emergence of singular, brilliant leaders, be it David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, or, for that matter, Ariel Sharon, among countless others. Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister and Sharon’s successor in Kadima, doesn’t quite have the same power or personality to effectively lead the region into happier times.

The only ones who can really command the stage at this seminal moment are Amir Peretz of the Labour Party or, of course, Netanyahu from Likud. With his extensive experience and ability to command respect from all parties, Netanyahu seems more qualified to take over the country. While Peretz is a superlative choice if the dynamics remained solely domestic, the addition of the international arena gives Netanyahu a clear advantage.

The burning question in Israeli politics now, however, is whether Kadima will be able to carry on the legacy of Sharon without the man himself. Currently, Kadima is gaining ground in polls; the latest numbers suggest that it will take anywhere from 42 to 44 seats in the 120 seat parliament, well ahead of the Labour and Likud parties.

But, the situation could be very delicately dependent on Sharon’s condition. Should Sharon be declared officially incapacitated, how will the public respond? Coupled with an energetic and sympathetic campaign from the opposition, this declaration might well prompt a loss of confidence in Kadima, and a Labour or Likud victory. Even though the polls currently favor Kadima, one must heed Big Ben’s words — “I always lose the election in the polls, and I always win it on election day.”

If he does win the March elections, unlikely at this stage, Netanyahu will still have to deal with the centrist Kadima, and to a lesser extent, Labour. Likud should not consider Sharon’s fall to be an opportunity to impose their hard-line stance on the Middle East; rather, they should take the chance to move forward in the peace process using the track Sharon has already laid. If Netanyahu does progress his predecessor’s policies, I’m confident that not only will the situation between Israel and Palestine improve, but also that his party will gain significant political capital for the years to come.

If, however, Netanyahu decides to revert to his uncompromising stance, we could easily witness a complete breakdown in law and order, particularly as the Palestinians are all-too-familiar with Benny. The choice could be in an MIT alum’s hands and I hope I can say that I rather like it that way.