Last week’s U.S. election, a solid win for Barack Obama, still left the country in two distinct, opposing groups. There are those who will miss the election and curl up in a ball over its conclusion, grasping at straws to prolong the fun (hey, Al Franken ran!), and those who can’t celebrate Obama’s win or the end of the race because they’re prone on the floor, unconscious from banging their head into a wall for the last 15 months.
But at least the U.S. elections are held at regular, four-year intervals, inevitable and expected each and every leap year’s first November Tuesday.
In those crazy parliamentary democracies, the election can be called for at a moment’s notice. And when Israel is the country involved, early elections are routine, a sardonic-smile inducing feature of life in this sliver of the Middle East.
So of course, amidst world financial crisis, hopeful indirect peace negotiations with one of their hostile neighbors, an uneasy truce with their occupied minorities, occasional Arab-Jew riots, settler violence against their own army, and the developing fear of crazy people making their own nukes, the Israeli government (the Knesset) calls for early elections. There’s nothing better to do, it seems.
While early elections are expected here (no Knesset in the last 20 years has made it through the full four-year term), this one came about in an unusual way. First, Ehud Olmert had the misfortune of getting caught accepting loads of cash from Long Island millionaire Morris Talansky, and also of double-booking government trips and pocketing the extras for personal or financial use. After a summer of holding out for indictments, and then for his party, the centrist Kadima (Hebrew for “Forward”) to elect a new leader, Olmert finally conceded the post and stepped down.
This cleared the way for a rare fresh face in Israeli politics. While many of the major players in Israel seem to cycle in power (for example, the current president, Shimon Peres, succeeded Itzhak Rabin as Prime Minister 13 years ago and still hangs around), Tzipi Livni was meant to be different.
Nicknamed Ms. Clean, she promised to offer a “different kind of politics”, not so different in message from Mr. Obama. At a relatively young 50 and as a pragmatic foreign minister, Livni hadn’t had the chance to screw up or tarnish her reputation yet, which was enough for a narrow win over transportation minister Shaul Mofaz in the primary election last September.
Winning the leadership slot for the biggest party is not enough to form a government though, and therein came Livni’s first black mark. Unlike parliamentary democracies where the winning party automatically controls the parliament, in Israel, ,the winner needs to form a coalition to rule, a very difficult task when every fringe party acquires a few seats – the 120 members in this Knesset come from 13 different parties.
Add in the ambitions of possible cooperating parties to make gains in an early election and limit Livni’s incumbency advantage, and you get what they call in this country a balagan. It translates as “big f*cking mess”. Roughly.
A different kind of politics is ill-suited to horse-trading, influencing friends, and winning power among cynical, loyal politicians. Livni gave it an effort, bending over half-backwards to give the left-wing Labor party and their leader, former PM Ehud Barak, enough cash in the budget and power in the Knesset (Barak would have been double-secret Super Deputy Prime Minister in Livni’s government) to jump on board. Kadima and Labor made up 48 members, and a few more small parties pushed the count to 59.
But there’s another funny thing about having a government in the Holy Land.
Usually, the coalitions involve the Orthodox parties, representatives of the ultra-religious minorities in the Ashkenazi (i.e. European) and Sephardic (African, Middle Eastern) populations. Since the groups operate outside of the general party framework, they are always attractive swing members to fill out a coalition.
The only cost for adding United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi Orthodox party, or their Sephardic counterparts Shas, to the coalition is a handcuff on the peace process, a bunch of money, and a piece of your political soul.
This time around Shas was the main player. Eli Yishai, chairman of the party, led a strident negotiation campaign against Livni in hopes of gaining over $250 million in increased child allowances (government handouts for each kid in large Orthodox families allows for the parents to avoid working), a promise from the government not to negotiate over Jerusalem in peace talks, and a potential cabinet position. Education Minister was the most-mentioned position, and having the head of Shas as the Education Minister would be like allowing James Dobson to dictate public school curriculum in America.
Despite an extension on the coalition-forming period and extended efforts, Livni could not get Shas to calm down on their demands, and so she gave up the effort and conceded to a new election. The elections come in February, and to prevent the government from pandering, the Knesset called a recess that went into effect November 10th. Olmert remains in power in a caretaker role, responsible for keeping the country together and continuing to represent it abroad.
This caretaker position leaves all the pertinent parties in interesting predicaments:
The election itself is shaping up as a showdown between Kadima and the right wing Likud party. Likud is headed by Netanyahu, a former prime minister who left in disgrace but has rehabilitated his image, mostly by staying out of the way.
His party has revived itself in the same way, quietly holding the line on supporting settlements in the West Bank regions of Judea and Samaria that are intended for the Palestinians in most two-state solution plans, and preparing to paint their rivals not as a Centrist party but as a peacenik left wing group that does not have the strength or experience to protect Israel.
Livni and Kadima are not crippled by the coalition failure, but their image is in a strange place. On the one hand, Livni spun the failure as proof that she won’t sell out the country for personal political gain. On the other hand, she did try for a month to get the government together and didn’t exactly hold a firm line in negotiations throughout; Labor received a lot, and Shas would have as well if they were aware of the concept of compromise.
In addition, the looming presence of the caretaker prime minister complicates things. Olmert is hardly a poll-changer the way Bush was in the U.S. Election. But, after a run as Prime Minister where he made no significant progress on peace, Olmert has reinvented himself as an Israeli Jimmy Carter.
Freed from electoral or long-term pressures of the job, Olmert has become more and more vocal in his statements and interviews about the need for land concessions and compromise to make peace with the Palestinians. On the last day of this Knesset, a memorial day commemorating the 13th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, Olmert declared that Israel has to return to pre-1967 boundaries, conceding the Golan Heights and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
This sort of position, along with Olmert’s eagerness to continue negotiations with Syria, places Olmert squarely in the left – the center probably realizes that concessions are inevitable but won’t admit it, the right refuses to concede anything.
Olmert, of course, is a member of Kadima. So if he shifts left, he tars the rest of the Kadima members, such as Livni, as lefties. Which makes it all the easier to paint Kadima as a peacenik left wing radical faction, no matter what distancing Livni does to get away from Olmert. And so the race narrows to a Livni versus Netanyahu battle for the nation’s soul.
In the afterglow of the U.S.A.’s historic election, the normally weary Israeli public at least has a new frame at which to observe this race. Obama is now an endorsement for Livni (if you believe that his pragmatic hopes for peace will match hers) or Netanyahu (if you think that Netanyahu can persuade the fresh president that the peace process is flawed).
Everybody here wonders how they can spin his victory to advantage, even if Israel was one of the three countries, along with the Philippines and Georgia, that preferred McCain to Obama.
Unfortunately, the cynicism in Israel is a little deeper-rooted than in the States. Or, at least, nobody has emerged as a transforming figure who can offer change we can believe in.
Nobody denies that this is a vital election for Israel, what with all the aforementioned, perennial problems in the country. But one election stands a small chance of changing the country on a deep level, and more likely than not the 18th Knesset will continue the revolving door of recycled politicians and early elections.
Israel is a land of hardheaded people; it comes from all the wall-banging.