[In light of this week's national elections in Israel, I thought it prudent to post an old column written as preview of the last round of national elections in 2006. Most of what was written then could stand unedited in regard to what's going on now, except that the Labor Party's power is entirely restricted to playing a junior role in a Livni coalition gov't, and a much smaller role under Netanyahu.]
Exit the Mermaid
A rough guide to the 2006 Israeli elections.
The only good to have possibly come of the tragedy that befell Ariel Sharon in January 2006 is that his departure from the scene forces others to step up their game in time for the rapid activity that is likely to occur in the region over the period between now and, say, 2012. One of these persons is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has already been described as “Israel’s Hillary.” That’s the highest compliment to be paid either lady.
Sharon was a special person, but remember that he was a 77 year-old man, five-seven and 250 pounds, who’d spent 40 years working spots where instant death was always a possibility. We’ll never know if Kadima was in some way a reflection on his own mortality. “The Little Mermaid” personally brought Livni into his breakaway Kadima coalition, and she emerges from his debilitation as the party’s second-leading figure, behind only acting PM Ehud Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor and skilled fundraiser. All this has major implications for America.
Likud has been split on settlement issues for two years. It’s possible that Sharon’s exit clears the path for a reunited Likud that could win an outright majority, but not likely since the issue is so polarizing. (International meddling in Israeli affairs doesn’t help.) To dismantle Kadima would require senior Likud loyalists to cede key Ministerial positions to folks like Livni and Ohlmert, who bolted from Likud to follow Sharon and were about to pound their old mates in the March election. Polls taken before Sharon’s stroke had his party up on both Labor and Likud, despite the Netanyahu Factor.
Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu is considered almost universally to be a future PM. The fact of his ascent has been simply a technical matter. He possesses many of the attributes people look for in a leader: young, handsome, a clearly-defined political ideal, military experience, and a legacy. His late brother Jonathan is an Israeli war hero, and his father was an intellectual who participated in the founding of the country. Today, “Bibi” stands out as a major figure, one of only a handful of Israeli politicians recognizable to non-Israelis, and the only one currently likely to reclaim the big chair.
When Netanyahu resigned as Finance Minister in Sharon’s cabinet to protest the Gaza pullout in 2005, it set in motion the unraveling of Likud and the new reality of Israeli politics. After Netanyahu resigned, Sharon replaced him with Ohlmert and left the party he’d helped found in the 1960s. Kadima drew Ohlmert and Livni from Likud, with some tacit support from Shimon Peres. Sharon then called for new elections, a right the PM shares with the Israeli Knesset via the No Confidence vote.
Lost in all this is the Labor Party, which has struggled to rebound from the death of party icon Yizhak Rabin in November 1995. Shimon Peres, a twice-former PM who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Yasser Arafat, succeeded Rabin and was promptly defeated in 1996 by Netanyahu, who lost in 1999 to Ehud Barak. Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000 helped spark the second intifada, which began the next day. The resulting tumult brought Sharon to power, five years ago, and left Labor scrambling to find itself. It could be said that the US Democratic Party has a similar predicament, except that Labor has shown signs of actually solving the problem. Of course, Labor chief Amir Peretz has no shot at the Prime Ministership this time, but he could emerge as the third or fourth key member of the post-election coalition.
The Sharon situation, in some ways, mirrors Rabin’s assassination, in that both were embattled PMs with Bibi Netanyahu on their trail. Both were suffering from the internal perception of weakness and capitulation to Palestinian terror, even as both were being hailed as peacemakers abroad. One key difference is that Rabin did not die with elections 100 days out and with Iran weeks away from going nuclear.
The main question of March 28 is whether Ohlmert can (or should) hold back the challenge of Netanyahu. Whoever wins must then act quickly to build a coalition that can hold up through the tumult of 2006; expect Livni to play a major role in that. At this point Israel really has four “major” parties: Labor, Likud, the upstart Kadima, and the sum of all the smaller parties in Israeli politics. Any could do benefit from the situation. The strength of Israeli civil life should carry them through the difficult days ahead.
January 7, 2006