By Amotz Asa-El
Wars have frequently inspired, and even determined, the outcomes of Israeli elections.
The first three Arab-Israeli wars, in 1948, ’56 and ’67, were won decisively and consolidated Labor’s political hegemony during Israel’s first three decades of existence. Similarly, Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory in 2003 reflected his successful quelling of the previous two years’ terror war. And conversely, the 1973 war, in which Israel was surprised by simultaneous invasions from Syria and Egypt, eventually resulted in Labor’s loss of power, just like the terror war that began in 2000 was followed by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s trouncing at the ballots.
It is therefore natural that the current fighting in Gaza will somehow reboot Israeli politics, considering that it broke out just as campaigning for February’s general election was gathering momentum. However, while this war is likely to have serious impacts in other respects, politically the current assessment in Israel is that the political map’s general contours have not changed much.
First, and oddly enough, the prime minister is not running for re-election, as police investigate corruption allegations against him. Consequently, the most natural person to be identified with this war’s outcome, for better or worse, will not be there for the voters to either reward or punish.
Second, and even more oddly, Olmert’s two political partners in running this war, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, are running as rivals to each other in this election, and in fact are competing for the same centre-left electorate – the former as head of the ruling Kadima party and the latter as head of Labor.
Still, theirs is seen as a competition for second place, as all polls indicate that the pre-war front runner, Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu, is also the post-war frontrunner. In other words, while the public is clearly satisfied with the government’s decision to counterattack following Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli towns, and even though there is a feeling that this war was properly managed, the public remains inclined to replace the current government.
First, because, despite this war’s impressive operations and preparation, questions concerning its origins remain relevant. Back in 2005, when he served as Ariel Sharon’s treasurer, Netanyahu resigned his job warning that the unilateral retreat from Gaza would result in the evacuated lands’ usage as staging grounds for attacks on Israel. There can be no denying that he issued these warnings – the whole nation heard them loud, clear and very recently – and there can be no denying that his predictions were validated, perhaps even sooner and more dramatically than Netanyahu predicted.
At the same time, Kadima is burdened by the platform on which it ran three years ago, when it promised to carry its unilateral disengagement vision beyond Gaza, and have Israel leave the West Bank lock, stock and barrel, even without an agreement with any corresponding Palestinian interlocutor. This commitment is believed to have cost Kadima in the 2006 election up to a quarter of its original following. Now the party will be on the defensive, as the unilateralist idea is considered by many voters as a major cause of the violence Israel had to quell in Gaza.
Labor, at the same time, traditionally argued that land should be relinquished, but said it should be forfeited only in return for peace and only as part of a deal with a solid Palestinian interlocutor. While right now in Israel there is also less sympathy for that formula than at any time since the Oslo Accords’ introduction more than 15 years ago, Labor has a new electoral asset: military success.
Even his rivals agree that Ehud Barak’s leadership of the Gaza campaign was impressive. The IDF seems to have emerged from its underperformance in 2006 determined to prove that it has treated all the ills that had previously appeared to afflict it. Whatever the final outcome of this clash, the IDF evidently showed up for battle well trained, properly equipped and highly motivated. As defence minister, Barak is identified with this success much the way Netanyahu is identified with the successful economic reforms he led as treasurer back in 2003-05.
Kadima’s candidate, Tzipi Livni, has no comparable line to show in her resume. Hence her party’s steady loss of altitude in the polls, and Labor’s consistently growing following. As of mid-January, polls claim that Likud should win about 25% of the vote, Kadima about 17% and Labor some 13%. Less than two months ago Labor seemed on the brink of extinction, as for the first time in its history its following had dropped to less than 10%. Now the party is feeling a tailwind at its back and expecting its momentum will likely accelerate by election day. This is certainly the prevalent sentiment in the political system, where Kadima lawmakers, led by Knesset Speaker Daliah Itzik, tried to use the war as a pretext to raise the possibility of delaying the election, an idea that Labor and Likud flatly rejected.
In other words, while this war does not seem likely to change the identity of the coming election’s victor, it nevertheless is restoring Labor as a respectable player, and at the same time potentially is further weakening the ruling party. In fact, there is some speculation Kadima might split following the election, with at least some of its lawmakers returning where most of them came from originally: Likud.
The war’s impact on Israeli politics is likely to be more meaningful the morning after the election, when the victor will have to pick his or her coalition partners.
If the winner is indeed Netanyahu, he will have to choose between a relatively narrow, conservative coalition of secular nationalists and religious populists on the one hand, or a broader, centrist coalition with Labor and Kadima on the other. The atmosphere created by the war is likely to create pressure on him to prefer the centrist choice, which in the Israeli political lingo is called a “unity government”, as it includes all the major political forces, and is then also joined by some of the smaller parties as well. Israel has had such right-left governments in times of emergency on several occasions, most memorably the ’67 war, the ’84 hyper-inflation crisis, and the ’01 war of terror. They all proved useful for treating specific crises, but unworkable when it came to tough diplomatic choices.
While differences between Likud and its two potential partners concerning Middle East peace remain deep, the issue that will require the most urgent action following the election will not be diplomacy, but economics. On that front, Netanyahu will find an ally in Kadima, which generally shares his fiscal conservatism, and an adversary in Labor, whose shadow treasurer, economist Avishai Braverman, preaches a budgetary expansion that is anathema to Netanyahu. Still, that kind of gap is nothing Israeli unity governments have not previously bridged, nor is it anything they cannot currently overcome – especially with a sense of patriotism, solidarity and vigilance now ubiquitous, and a recently fought battlefield still smouldering.