Australia/Israel Review

Game On

Nov 24, 2008 | Amotz Asa-El

Political strategies emerge for Israel’s election

By Amotz Asa-El

“He has matured and I have aged,” said Likud’s latest recruit, Benny Begin, in a televised press conference where he explained his improbable return to the political fray in general, and to Binyamin Netanyahu’s bosom in particular.

It was but a typical moment in an unfolding celebration of jockeying and manoeuvring as Israel prepares for an early election amid renewed violence in Gaza and economic mayhem abroad.

The candidates’ commotion has been lively, as the three major parties prepared to elect their legislative candidates in December primaries.

For Netanyahu, brandishing the son of Menachem Begin, the Israeli right’s legendary founding father and first prime minister, was a coup in its own right. The bespectacled geologist, viewed in Israel as an honourable and uncorruptible man of principle even by his political opponents, had bolted Netanyahu’s government back in 1997 in protest of an accord with Yasser Arafat in which Netanyahu partly ceded the West Bank city of Hebron. That was back when Begin was 52 and Netanyahu 47. Twelve years on, with both men greying and Begin close to retirement age, the two seem finally reconciled and ready to face a common enemy.

Begin was but one of many.

In what reflects a widespread assessment that Netanyahu is likely to head the next government, a rainbow coalition of newly converted allies has been gradually gathering around him. The hawkish Begin was balanced by centrists like former head of the Israeli Police Assaf Hefetz, who was previously identified with Labor; former National Security Council head Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, one of the masterminds behind the anti-terror fence (which to the ideological right is anathema, as it potentially compromises the lands beyond it); and Dan Meridor, a major supporter of the Gaza pullout who had previously served as treasurer in Netanyahu’s cabinet. Meridor and Netanyahu clashed, and Meridor departed the government and later left politics. Now Meridor, like his childhood friend Begin, said he and Netanyahu had matured, and believe they can put the past behind them.

Netanyahu’s recruitment drive has yet to be matched by his opponents.

The ruling Kadima party has so far added no big names to its list of candidates other than the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction’s number two, Yisrael Hasson, and a former IDF spokesman. Still, Kadima’s newly elected chairperson, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has managed to prevent any departures by her colleagues, including her disgruntled and hawkish number two, former defence minister Shaul Mofaz. As of mid-November, it seemed that although she failed to establish a government, Livni has successfully led her party’s emergence from the sense of crisis by which it was gripped in the wake of its previous leader’s legal entanglements.

That is a lot more than can be said of Labor.

The heirs to what once was Israel’s perennial ruling party have been abandoned by their second in command, Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon, while a slew of prestigious figures, led by Amos Oz, Israel’s foremost novelist, said Labor has lost touch with its own ideas and that they will therefore back Meretz, Labor’s long-time satellite on the left.

All agendas in this election, whether regional, international, or personal, relate to this triangle of a rejuvenated Likud, dispirited Labor and rehabilitated Kadima.

Ideologically, there are genuine differences between Livni, who is prepared to cede most of the West Bank in turn for a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority, and Netanyahu, who remains emotionally attached to the West Bank and sceptical about the Palestinian leadership’s desire and ability to deliver peace for land.

On this front, Netanyahu intends to highlight Kadima’s failure to predict Hamas’s electoral gains in ’06 and its violent takeover of Gaza in ’07. Should rockets and mortars continue spewing out of Gaza his arguments will be all the more compelling. However, even if quiet is restored there, his prediction three years ago that Gaza would remain a bane even after Israel leaves it, is likely to win back at least some of the many votes the Likud lost to Kadima in March ’06.

Meanwhile, Labor leader Ehud Barak, who is the defence minister, will try to win points on this front, where he faces an uphill struggle to deliver some kind of a major breakthrough that will dramatically re-arrange the military situation in Israel’s south. As long as he hasn’t achieved this, his leadership will be associated with what the Likud will portray as a military failure. Similarly, the Likud will play up the Second Lebanon War of 2006 as both a military disappointment and a civic failure, for which it will blame both Kadima and Labor as the leaders of the coalition that led Israel into that war.

On the personal side, Netanyahu is likely to ignore Barak, assuming he poses no threat to him, and focus on Livni, who will actually be praised as a person but questioned as a leader. “Livni lacks the experience,” said both Begin and Meridor in their respective press conferences with Netanyahu, evidently repeating a line that was coordinated beforehand.

There was a time when Netanyahu was the one accused of inexperience and immaturity, but since then, as Ariel Sharon’s finance minister, he has demonstrated that whether one agrees or disagrees with his views, he can plan and execute policy. Livni, for now, has fewer such credentials on her resume, other than the role she played in producing the UN-brokered cease-fire resolution that ended the fighting in Lebanon in 2006. While some have seen in that a show of sobriety and poise, Netanyahu’s people have been deriding it as a Lebanese manipulation that allowed Hezbollah to survive and even prosper in the aftermath of what should have ended in its dismemberment.

For its part, Kadima will present itself as the centrist force that will balance between what it will say is Labor’s socialist bravado and the Likud’s military and diplomatic adventurism. Socially, it will represent a bizarre combination of a party populated mainly by former Likud legislators, followed mainly by former Labor voters.

At any rate, this election will be largely, and very possibly mainly, about the economy.

As of November, of the three main parties, Labor is the one with the clearest economic case. The world is backtracking from Thatcherism, says Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Avishai Braverman, and Israel, too, must expand the budget and the deficit. Moreover, Labor representatives are blaming the market reforms that Netanyahu led in 2003 for the slowdown that is already well underway in Israel.

The economic setbacks are incontrovertible.

Interest rates have plunged to a historic low, Tel Aviv shares have been nearly halved over the past year, tax collection is well under expectations, and every week several more hundred layoffs are announced in assorted industries, from hi-tech to security. Clearly, Israel’s intensely globalised economy is affected by the global mayhem, and the middle class feels much of the insecurity that millions now share in the US, Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. It follows that blaming the situation on Netanyahu – and generally associating him with right-wing economics that are fast becoming passé elsewhere – may resonate with some voters.

Then again, polls indicate that Netanyahu’s reforms are seen by most of the middle class as a success story, and it is that electorate over which Kadima and the Likud will duel. And those voters frequently say that it is thanks to Netanyahu’s reforms – which among other things detached the banks from the long-term savings industry – that not one Israeli bank, insurance company, or investment house has failed so far. Moreover, Israel’s economic performance, with all the problems, remains better than that of any other developed economy.

Further, any attack by Labor on Netanyahu’s economics will have to be countered by Kadima, too, as it has generally upheld his reforms. Most importantly, Netanyahu will present himself as the only candidate with the suitable background for these economically testing times. And so, while presenting himself as a sort of military Churchill and diplomatic Reagan, the leading prime ministerial contender will also be presenting himself as a kind of economic Gordon Brown.

In sum, whether regionally, economically, or politically, circumstances seem to be playing into Netanyahu’s hands. All he needs to do for the next three months is avoid making mistakes. If that transpires, then Benny Begin may indeed be vindicated in his insight that Binyamin Netanyahu has matured.

That is not to say that if and when he wins February’s election, Netanyahu will opt for a right-wing coalition. While all polls indicate he is the preferred candidate for prime minister, Israel’s proportional system has the voters choosing not candidates, but parties, and on that front the gap between Netanyahu and Livni narrows. (For instance, one mid-November poll predicts Likud receiving 33 seats, Kadima 28 seats, and Labor 11 seats in the coming Knesset if the election were held now.)

For the moment, while all expect Likud’s Knesset faction to more than double and maybe even treble from its current 12 out of 120 legislators, that will still not suffice for a solid coalition led by Likud and the parties to its right. And Netanyahu has already said that if elected he would prefer a coalition with Kadima and Labor. Between them, the three main secular parties should comprise some 60 percent of the Knesset.

What might push them into each others’ arms is the economic crisis, which will make it pretty much impossible, both financially and ideologically, for Netanyahu to heed the populist demands of the religious parties he would need for any narrow coalition. They are campaigning for extensive expansion of welfare spending in terms of direct subisidies to families, as well as funds for religious institutions. While Labor’s demands to expand the budget will also be difficult for him to satisfy, these mainly concern expanding funding for the health and education budgets, rather than restoring the kind of social spending that Netanyahu previously cut on the grounds that it encouraged people to work less and reproduce more.

Livni is also expected to prefer a coalition with Netanyahu, particularly after the failed coalition negotiations she had with the ultra-Orthodox parties, prior to calling the early election.

A secular coalition might also be able to introduce some political reform, an idea both Livni and Netanyahu privately support, fearing that Israel’s proportional system and lack of sufficient separation between the legislative and executive branches is destabilising government and rendering considered policymaking increasingly impossible. Labor will join such an effort with enthusiasm, as it may prove its only chance of surviving what will follow February 2009.



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