Israel’s new political paradigm
By Ted Lapkin
A wise man once counselled me to avoid the business of making predictions – especially if they had anything to do with the future. And as the dust begins to settle from Israel’s parliamentary elections, enough surprises have emerged to validate the wisdom of that advice.
|Olmert will preside over a society rejecting utopian fantasies in favour of commonsense solutions|
Yet despite these unexpected factors, there was little need for a crystal ball to divine the general outlook of Israel’s post-ballot landscape. The election was viewed as a referendum on the policy vision of Ariel Sharon. And while Sharon himself lies comatose in a Jerusalem hospital, his Kadima party cruised to a plurality victory, winning 29 seats in the next Knesset.
They say that nature abhors a vacuum, and the Kadima party arose to fill the void that had developed in Israeli politics. Five years of suicide terrorism have destroyed the credibility of the dovish Israeli mantra that peace with the Palestinians was imminent. The blood that washed through the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem caused the peace camp to haemorrhage public support. While the Israeli Left has not totally bled-out politically, it is a mere shadow if its former self.
Half a decade’s worth of conflict also caused the Israeli mainstream to sour on the conservative vision of retaining Gaza and the West Bank in their entirety. The hard-right program of settlement proliferation throughout the occupied territories came to be regarded by most Israelis as a recipe for continued trouble.
Disabused of both right-wing and left-wing notions by a bitter reality, a solid majority of Israelis flocked to a more moderate worldview. Having lost any faith that there is a genuine Palestinian willingness to make a rational peace, the centre of Israeli political gravity adopted a policy of security through separation.
Hence we saw the disengagement from Gaza. Hence we see the continued construction of the security barrier that has contributed to a rapid reduction in successful Palestinian suicide attacks.
But despite this evolving political landscape, most of Israel’s existing parties remained mired in their old ideological ruts. And this hidebound stance created an opening for a new movement that would mirror Israel’s new political reality.
Nineteenth century Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz famously observed the similarity between politics and war. And during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, general Ariel Sharon detected a gap in enemy lines between two Egyptian army groups. He immediately exploited the breach, sending his entire division across the Suez Canal to cut off 50,000 Egyptian soldiers and win the war on the Sinai front.
And when Sharon saw a similar fissure developing at the centre of the Israeli political continuum, he decisively moved to fill the gap through the creation of Kadima. You can take Ariel Sharon out of the army, but you can’t take the army out of Ariel Sharon.
Israel’s decision to adopt a policy of unilateralism was vindicated by a Palestinian election that produced a jihadist government led by Hamas. After all, if the guy on the other side of the table is openly declaring his intention to kill you, then the futility of negotiations becomes self-evident. And there is no doubt about where Hamas stands on the question of Israel’s legitimate existence – there is none.
So with no peace partner worthy of the name, Sharon’s successor at the Kadima helm, Ehud Olmert, has indicated that he will continue the unilateralist approach. Olmert has declared his intention to fix Israel’s permanent boundaries by the year 2010 – with or without Palestinian approval. This will involve completing the security barrier and dismantling smaller Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. Two large settlement blocs situated on strategic topographical terrain features will surely be retained by Israel.
Olmert’s announcement constitutes a clear message to Palestinians that the diplomatic train is about to leave the station. If they don’t rectify their lapse into Hamas-led electoral lunacy, West Bank residents will one day wake up to recognise that their borders have been determined without them.
This much is clear. What is less apparent is the impact that the Israeli elections will have on the domestic scene of the Jewish state. With only 29 seats out of a 120-strong Knesset, Kadima will perforce be in the market for coalition partners. And because Olmert’s West Bank withdrawal plan is anathema to the Israeli right, he will seek allies from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
The first stop on Olmert’s mate-hunting expedition will be the centre-Left Labor Party, which garnered 20 seats in the balloting. Labor itself was subject to something of a revolution last year when the party spurned the continued leadership of the venerable Shimon Peres. Labor instead turned to Amir Peretz, a forceful and charismatic union leader who sports a Stalin-esque moustache that complements his unabashed socialist rhetoric.
Peretz will surely demand the restoration of Israel’s fraying social welfare net as the price of admission to any coalition with Kadima. Thus it is highly likely that Labor will demand the Finance Ministry portfolio during the negotiations over the allocation of portfolios.
And the neo-socialist agenda of Amir Peretz will doubtless be endorsed by Kadima’s other likely coalition partners, as well. The leftist Meretz party will throw its weight behind the effort to roll back the economic reforms enacted under former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But with only five Knesset seats to its name (a loss of one), Meretz by itself is consigned to the lightweight class of parliamentary politics.
A more substantial contender for coalition membership is the real surprise of the 2006 elections – the Pensioners Party that roared out of nowhere to win seven parliamentary seats. Even more incongruous was the fact that much of the Pensioners Party support came from people under 30 years of age.
This unexpected showing was a reflection of something completely new. The raison d’etre of the Pensioner’s Party is the restoration of pensions and benefits for Israel’s elderly. The Pensioners are so singularly focused on social issues that they have granted their parliamentarians an unheard of freedom of conscience to vote on security questions however they wish. Thus for the first time, a substantial bloc of Israeli voters viewed socio-economic policy on a par with the defence issues that have traditionally dominated national politics.
During his tenure as finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu presided over a series of free market economic measures that laid the foundations for the flourishing of Israel’s hi-tech sector. But the budget cuts and structural shifts intrinsic to these reforms inflicted substantial pain upon the disadvantaged elements of Israeli society.
Most economists would argue that these tough-love policies were necessary to ensure Israel’s economy could emerge from recession and remain internationally competitive. But the voting patterns from the 2006 election bespeak substantial public disquiet about growing inequities within Israeli society. And as it turns out, droves of Israeli twenty-somethings cast ballots for the Pensioners Party out of concern for the wellbeing of their grandparents.
|Israel’s 17th Knesset – 2006*|
* One seat changed hands after this story was written (Labor -1, UAL +1)
The combination of Kadima (29), Labor (20), Meretz (5) and the Pensioners (7) would yield 61 seats for Ehud Olmert’s prospective coalition, the magic number needed to control the 120-member Knesset. And by throwing money at the ultra-orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – Olmert should be able to induce one or both of them to join as well. Thus a reasonably solid government seems to be well within Kadima’s grasp.
Yet the character of that coalition might place Olmert on a direct collision course with the international financial community. Since the Netanyahu economic reforms, Israel has been the recipient of large-scale direct foreign investment that has largely bought into its technology sector.
But the venture capitalists who fuel Israel’s economic resurgence will cast a baleful eye towards efforts to restore the spendthrift, dirigiste policies of the Jewish state’s quasi-socialist past. Hence, internal pressure from Labor’s Amir Peretz and his left-wing allies is likely to be countered by threats to Israel’s investment climate and credit rating.
Whether the prospect of derailing Israel’s economic recovery will be sufficient to moderate the socialist agenda of Olmert’s left-wing coalition partners remains to be seen. But at least in the immediate future, the scene of some of Israel’s most ferocious political combat will be found, not on the traditional battlefield of national security policy, but on socio-economic issues.