Australia/Israel Review

The Wash-up

Feb 23, 2009 | Amotz Asa-El

By Amotz Asa-El

It may not have been on the scale of Truman’s upset in 1948, but Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, stunned the political system in Israel’s February 10 general election. Livni, the outgoing foreign minister, emerged with more votes than anyone else after having trailed Likud leader Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu throughout the campaign, often by more than 10 percentage points.

Still, impressive as this accomplishment was for Livni and her 28-person faction, it still left Netanyahu as the likely prime minister-designate, despite his faction winning only 27 seats, since his appointment seems to enjoy the backing of more lawmakers than Livni. As of this writing, all eyes are turning to President Shimon Peres who, according to Israeli law, must consult with all Knesset factions and then assign the legislator most of them prefer with the task of forming a government. Then again, here too there may be surprises, as some parties that ideologically belong in the right say they will not necessarily recommend to Peres that he ask Netanyahu to form the government.

This politically odd situation alone became a major issue the morning after Israel elected the 18th Knesset, even before all began to analyse this arguably inconclusive contest’s assortment of winning and losing politicians, parties and causes.

With 12 factions checkering a parliament of 120 members; with the largest party comprising a mere 23% of the house; and with the prospective ruling party only the second largest in the legislature, dozens of politicians and pundits concluded Israel’s political system must be overhauled at once if it is to start functioning properly.

But before the mechanics of such a reform could be devised and its prospects assessed, the entire system is scratching its head to understand just what Israel’s voters have actually said.

In this regard, some things are obvious, and chief among them is the left’s debacle. Labor’s plunge to a historic low of 13 seats, and its satellite Meretz’s decline to only three seats, added up to a vote of no confidence in practically anything with which the two were identified. With less than 14% of the electorate behind them, as opposed to 47% under Yitzhak Rabin’s leadership in 1992, the public now said ‘no’ to the economic platform on which they ran, to the Oslo heritage with which they are identified, and to the personal leadership of former Prime Minister and outgoing Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Labor is expected by most political observers to replace Barak with a new leader by next year.

So dismal was Labor’s performance that it emerged as only the fourth largest party, smaller even than the secular-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Is Our Home”). Barak is clearly the biggest loser in this election, as he failed to win votes even following the military campaign he led in Gaza as defence minister, despite most Israelis actually approving of his handling of it.

What, then, led him to suffer this defeat? One factor is that the Israeli public is no longer enamoured by generals-turned-politicians, and a critical mass of voters preferred an elegantly-tailored, soft-spoken mother and lawyer to an impressively decorated, but also gruff and aloof, war hero.

Then again, there were also other issues at play. Most crucially, the Israeli public, like most electorates in the world today, is concerned over the economy, and in fact this was on people’s minds even more than the security situation. This is not because security is less important, but because when it comes to Israel’s war on terror, there is little significant difference between Barak, Livni and Netanyahu; but on the economy differences were deep, and the voters’ verdict sharp.

Labor and Meretz promised to dramatically expand public spending and finance it by borrowing while allowing the budget deficit to balloon – “even to 7%,” as Barak said. Netanyahu said he would impose fiscal discipline and cut taxes, thereby further shrinking revenues, but at the same time allowing the citizenry to stimulate the economy with newly-available income.

Corporate taxes, he promised, would be cut to 18% and the maximum income tax to 35%. Kadima essentially agreed with Netanyahu, though the tax cuts it promised were more modest. Lieberman’s economics are as conservative as Netanyahu’s.

Faced with this conservative bloc, the left said it was merely taking a page from Barack Obama’s book, and doing what the rest of the developed world was doing in the face of the global crisis. But the voters found these arguments either unimpressive or altogether alarming, in what many feel reflects the mainstream electorate’s increasingly middle-class value system.

At the same time, the Oslo heritage also suffered a blow, as Labor and Meretz are seen as its midwives. By contrast, Kadima had yet to be born at all in 1993, and its lawmakers are mostly former Likud members who have followed Ariel Sharon’s lead as he modified his views on the Palestinian question. The result of all this history, in the aftermath of the past several years’ attacks on Israel’s south and north, has been that a good portion of the electorate abandoned the left, some went as far afield as Likud and Lieberman, others only as far as Kadima.

The first to draw conclusions from this collapse was Labor itself, whose newly elected Knesset members have already clarified to Barak that they will oppose joining any coalition, arguing that the only way to rehabilitate their party is by having it spend time in opposition.

The other loser in the election is Netanyahu. Just how he lost the handsome lead he had enjoyed in the polls so consistently and for so long will remain the subject of much analysis for some time. However, one thing that apparently worked against Netanyahu was his opponents’ charges that his reforms exposed the poorest classes to the current recession’s full brunt.

Some of those claims were factually unfounded – most notably the claim that Netanyahu’s actions as Ariel Sharon’s finance minister five years ago now resulted in “people losing their pensions,” as Barak said. In fact, no one lost a pension, though many pensions of course depreciated momentarily, as they have elsewhere, due to circumstances that had nothing to do with Israel. Still, Netanyahu’s tactic in the face of all this was to avoid confrontation and even join other people’s half-baked efforts to artificially secure the long-term yields of pensions. Such measures both compromised Netanyahu’s economic principles and record, and left the impression that he was actually admitting failure.

Another cause behind Netanyahu’s setback was apparently over-confidence in general, and over-reliance on the internet in particular. Whatever the extent of these factors, the visible fact was that Likud deployed but a fraction of the activists it had used in previous elections, and cared much less about holding outdoor rallies, assembling town hall meetings and blanketing intersections with posters, flyers and stickers. As one disappointed activist put it: “Bibi thought he could imitate Obama by placing that many ads on the internet – but this is Israel; here you win only by sending the infantry into enemy territory.”

One who did venture deep into enemy territory was Netanyahu’s former aide and current rival – Lieberman. In what reflects the Israeli Arab community’s radicalisation in recent years, as its elected leaders increasingly identified with Israel’s sworn enemies and condoned their tactics, Lieberman spread the xenophobic slogan “No loyalty – no citizenship,” which swept the support of 12.5% of the electorate.

Lieberman’s demand is that Israeli Arabs serve a national service of some sort to replace the military service from which they are exempt. He also advocates land swaps, whereby a prospective Palestinian state’s borders would be drawn so that they include large Israeli Arab towns. At the same time, Lieberman also espouses a very secular platform, in line with his frequently Russian-speaking electorate. Most notably, he demands the introduction of civil marriages, alongside the current system whereby Israelis can only marry through clergy, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

In other words, the right-wing coalition which on the face of it is Netanyahu’s natural choice, may prove quite difficult to manage and maybe even to just assemble, considering that its other four prospective members are religious parties whose common denominator is an insistence that Israeli matrimonial laws remain the exclusive province of the religious establishment.

What, then, is the most likely scenario?

Much will be up to President Peres. In terms of his powers, prestige and experience, Peres is capable of summoning Netanyahu and Livni in order to urge them to create between them the nucleus of a new coalition, whose aims will be to reform the political system, weather the global economic crisis, and face up to the Iranian threat.

In the more likely scenario, whereby Peres asks Netanyahu to attempt to form a coalition, the Likud leader is expected to first circle the right’s wagons around him, and only then invite Kadima to join, maybe hoping he can this way provoke a split within the one party that is larger than his. Then again, Netanyahu is believed to prefer Kadima to his right-wing allies. In that case, he may have to give that partner two of the three most important portfolios of Defence, Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Just who will then hold these positions and what they will do, is for now theoretical; almost as theoretical as the current political conundrum would have seemed only a few weeks ago.



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