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At the Crossroads, Again: Israel Facing Early Elections


One (major) tactical error and two fundamental political factors--namely, the position taken by the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and a political rebellion within her own party, Kadima--doomed Tzipi Livni's efforts to put together a coalition government that could win approval in the Knesset. She informed President Shimon Peres that she had failed in her mission and would rather go to early elections than submit to the demands she was facing from several quarters. And it now seems that elections will be held on February 10, 2009, three years since the seventeenth Knesset was elected. Israeli citizens are once again facing a crucial decision that might have an effect for many years to come.

Livni's serious miscalculation was in her choice of her order of priorities: to spend considerable energy and political capital, at the first stage, on roping in Ehud Barak and the Labor Party (who would not have bolted anyway, despite some of their early grumblings). All this, while leaving Shas for last--and thus, putting them in the driver's seat. It was left to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef to decide, at this point in time, whether she could be prime minister--a responsibility he was unwilling to shoulder. (There may, indeed, be a barely hidden streak of political misogyny in this decision.)

But even had she played her cards better, the basic orientations, not only of Shas, but of a large and vocal segment within Kadima, would have been likely to surface at some decisive moment. After all, the "Big Bang"--Ariel Sharon's dramatic move in 2005, which tore Likud apart and led to the creation of Kadima--did not reflect a dramatic shift to the left in the Israeli political spectrum. It was designed as a bid to create a stable center, willing to move toward partition and a two-state solution--but not on Palestinian terms; and thus, following the Disengagement, the option of taking further unilateral action was very much at the core of the new party's agenda. This design was derailed, however, first by the disappointing outcome of the war in 2006 and then, in a more positive turn of events, by the Annapolis process. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert endorsed the logic of negotiations on more than one front and more recently decided, in an audacious move, to present a public position on the question of future concessions that in effect places him well to the left of Ehud Barak's Labor Party. This delighted the Meretz leadership, which made no secret of its will to join Livni's coalition; but in equal measure, this transformation apparently frightened, and certainly greatly reduced the comfort zone, for both Shas and the Kadima "centrists."

  • Within Shas, setting aside the personal rivalries and other calculations that influenced their decision, there has always been fierce resistance to the prospect of concessions on a possible partition of Jerusalem (among other reasons, because the capital is a Shas stronghold). The mood of their own constituency tends to be nationalistic as well as religious (or traditional), and so the Likud message that "Shas sold out" is a threat to their political standing and an assertion they feel obliged to disprove. True, they supported Yitzhak Rabin during Oslo, with some reservations, but a lot has happened since to embitter their base and curtail their leadership's room for maneuver.

  • As for the "other half" of Kadima--largely, but not entirely, the part of the party that voted for Shaul Mofaz in the primaries--they tend to feel that they did not leave Likud when Sharon did in order to go "all the way to the left"; nor do they want to be placed in a situation where they become the far right (internally) of a governing coalition. They argue, cogently, that their voters expect them to be the central element, not the outer wing, of a balanced cabinet.

What needs to be recognized, even at this early point, is that these two factors are unlikely to be changed by the outcome of the next elections. It would be an act of folly to predict, at this point, what the political world will be like by February 10. American politics, regional dynamics, the Iranian threat, and the economic crisis could all be transformed by then. It is safe to assume, however, that Livni is unlikely to transform the party so completely, and to win so decisively on Election Day, as to be able to dispense with both Shas and her internal opposition. Even if she wins, she will have to govern from the center, because there is no other option (unless she makes another unexpected move and brings the radical Arab parties into the coalition). And so would Netanyahu, if Likud does rally in the elections and overtake Kadima in the number of seats.

In Israel, the direct vote for a person, attempted in 1996 (Netanyahu vs. Sharon); 1999 (Barak vs. Netanyahu) and 2002 (Sharon against Barak) has been abandoned. This time people will again vote for party lists, and the duty of putting together a government will fall upon the person able to command the greater bloc of support. Minor shifts in the balance, either way, can make Livni or Netanyahu the "winner," but still, neither will be able to run the country without the support of the other, or of a party from the other's bloc (Shas for Kadima; or a Likud-Labor combination if Netanyahu wins).

This means, in turn, that the negotiations with the Palestinians--and, for that matter, with Syria, due to similar reasons--cannot proceed by much, beyond the rather advanced stage they have already reached (and certainly cannot be coerced by the U.S. or other powers), unless the Palestinians and/or the Syrians truly modify their position on the borders, or accept a staged solution, with Jerusalem left out of the package for the time being. This is not to say that the Israeli electorate will have "voted against peace" or that the delay caused by the elections is some deliberate ploy: on the contrary. But the need for some degree of compromise, under which, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said at the time of Bill Clinton's effort, "no one gets 100 percent," has always been there. Had the Arab partners been able to settle for less than the full measure of their "inalienable rights," there would have been a deal long ago.

The world, however, will not stand still for Israelis and Palestinians to sort out their politics. Significant pressures will mount, and historically, it is at this point that ideas about a resilient National Unity Cabinet are likely to emerge. It will be based on the need to stand together on our minimal demands; a rough consensus over economic pragmatism together with a sense of urgency in facing the global crisis; and above all--not as a ploy to justify unity but as a real, active, dramatic concern for the immediate future--the need to unite in the face of painful decisions on Iran. It is too early to speculate as to the relative power that the election outcome will give the key protagonists; but it is almost safe to anticipate that a bid for unity, not a lurch to the right or left, will emerge after the elections. And this knowledge may even modify the manner in which the campaigns will be conducted--or, at least, let us hope so. This is not a time for abrasive "politics as usual."

Dr. Eran Lerman

Dr Eran Lerman is the Director, Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee. Originally published in Bulletin #78/2008 of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria. Reproduced by permission.

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Replies: 2 comments

Minor shifts in the balance, either way, can make Livni or Netanyahu the "winner," but still, neither will be able to run the country without the support of the other, or of a party from the other's bloc (Shas for Kadima; or a Likud-Labor combination if Netanyahu wins).

Dr. Lerman this is a very interesting insight into the Israeli election outcome. Frankly I consider this rather diconcerting. Taking into consideration the gradual collapse of the Cairo-brokered Hamas-Fatah negotiations, the sudden cautious stance of the President elect towards his Middle East policy and now a centrist Israeli government with perhaps little to no change in its negotiations on a 2-state solution - Looks like we're looking at another year of the same. I suppose settlements will continue to grow in the West Bank and more clashes in Gaza are expected in 2009 as well.

Posted by Gitanjali @ 11/19/2008 01:07 PM CST

A couple of errors need correcting in the discussion of direct voting for prime minister:

In Israel, the direct vote for a person, attempted in 1996 (Netanyahu vs. Sharon); 1999 (Barak vs. Netanyahu) and 2002 (Sharon against Barak) has been abandoned.

Actually, Israel had only two direct votes for prime minister. In 1996, Netanyahu beat Peres (not Sharon). In 1999, Barak beat Netanyahu.

In 2001, the Knesset repealed the direct vote. The next national elections took place in 2003, when the Likud headed by Sharon won 38 seats in the 16th Knesset. The Labor party came in second, with 19 seats.

Posted by Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv @ 11/19/2008 06:27 PM CST

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