The short slogan convinced many people that what was portrayed then as a centre-right party would eventually succeed in achieving peace with the Palestinians as it had done under Menahem Begin with Egypt.

However, the resounding defeat by Likud's rank and file of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement plan" on 2 May suggests that the party is no longer able or even willing to reach a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians, based on the land-for-peace formula.

Moreover, the clarion rejection by Likud of the proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip underscores the increasing divergence between its majority members and its leader, Ariel Sharon.

Many Israeli analysts attribute the defeat of Sharon's plan to a "phenomenal infiltration" of the party by supporters of the pro-settler movement Gush Emunim, especially tens of thousands of messianic settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hard line recruits

According to Israeli press sources, between 10,000 and 20,000 religious Zionists, mostly members of the National Religious Party (NRP), the so-called settlers' party, joined the Likud in the run up to the 2 May referendum.

The new members, according to the Haaretz newspaper, predetermined the outcome of the referendum even before it began.

Ultra religious Israeli settlers are
reported to have infiltrated Likud

However, the millenarian settlers are not content with a one-off success. They aspire to control a party they believe will continue to shape Israel’s political future for many years to come.

On 30 April, the Hatzofeh newspaper, a mouthpiece of Gush Emunim and the NRP ran an interesting ad, which read as follows:

"Today, they [members of the Likud] will vote on the settlements in Gaza, tomorrow they will elect the chairman of the Likud and the prime minister, and the day after tomorrow they will determine the makeup of the membership of the party central committee and shape the Likud for the Knesset.

"We need your presence, too, in the place where the fate of the state of Israel is determined. Join Now."

Same old Likud

So is the Likud drifting further to the right? Or is Sharon abandoning the party’s ideological tenets by agreeing to cede occupied Palestinian territory, something that no other Likud leader had ever agreed to do before.

Lev Grinberg, professor of political science at the Ben-Gurion University in Beir-Sheva, told Aljazeera.net that the Likud was only being faithful to its ideology, namely the Greater Land of Israel or (Eretz Yisrael Hashlema).

"It is Sharon that is bypassing the party, not the other way around"

Lev Grinberg,
professor of political science,
Ben-Gurion University

"It is not the Likud that is going further to the right. The Likud has always rejected territorial compromise with the Palestinians and adopted the ideology of Greater Israel. It is Sharon that is bypassing the party, not the other way around."

In May 2002, the Likud Central Committee decided by a large majority "no Palestinian state will be established west of the River Jordan". At that time, Sharon stood almost alone against Likud ministers, headed by Benyamin Netanyahu.

According to Grinberg, Likud is not and can not be a genuine partner for peace because of its maximalist ideology.

Dominant rightwing

Nonetheless, Grinberg insists that a majority of Israelis still want to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians, despite the "predominance" of "the forces of the right" in Israeli politics.

This view, however, is strongly rejected by Professor Asad Ghanim of Haifa University, an expert on Israeli political parties and frequent commentator on current affairs.

"It is true that many Israelis would like to reach peace with the Palestinians. However, the critical question is what kind of peace?" Ghanim says. "It is a peace that would leave large parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in Israeli hands."

Ghanim believes that neither the Likud nor the Labour party is capable of reaching a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians.

"Look, even if the Labour party comes to power tomorrow, it won't be able to form a stable government without the religious parties and the Russians who oppose dismantling settlements and withdrawal to the 1967 borders. So, the right will dominate the Israeli political landscape however you look at it."

Impotent Labour

Both Ghanim and Grinberg agree that the Labour Party, in its current state of affairs, cannot pose a real challenge to the hegemony of the rightist camp in Israel, even if it allies itself with all centrist and leftist parties.

"People prefer to go the real thing, the Likud and the far-right parties"

Professor Asad Ghanim,
Haifa University

"If Sharon can't do it [achieve peace and dismantle the settlements], I doubt very much that the Labour party would," says Grinberg.

For his part, Ghanim labels the Labour party "a spent force that has a pseudo leftist face but a truly rightist heart".

Asked why he thought the Labor party was losing public support, Ghanim pointed out that the Labour party was actually "no more than a moderate copy of the Likud".

"So, people prefer to go the real thing, the Likud and the far-right parties."

Diminishing options

Does this indicate that the creation of a viable Palestinian state on the territories Israel occupied in 1967 has become unrealistic? Ghanim says it is more than unrealistic; it is virtually impossible.

"It was clear as early as 1993 that the creation of a Palestinian state that is worthy of the name was out of question. Now, the prospects are even less likely."

Palestinian hopes for a viable
state of their own are fading

Asked what alternatives the Palestinians should follow, in light of the grim reality, Ghanim says "resistance, steadfastness, more resistance and more steadfastness" until conditions become ripe for the creation of a unitary, democratic state in all of Palestine where Jews and Arabs live equally as citizens.

Abd Allah Abd Allah, the PA deputy foreign minister, told Aljazeera.net that Palestinians were increasingly losing faith in the two-state solution and that time was running out for such a scenario.

"We know that there is no real difference between the Labour party and Likud. They are both against full withdrawal from our land and are decidedly against the repatriation of Palestinian refugees."

Abd Allah said Palestinians had only one strategy to face "this protracted denial of our rights".

"We are staying here and will never leave, and let the conflict take its course. The Crusaders were also here."