A Slow Race, a Dark Horse, and a Few Imponderables: Israel on the Eve of Elections

March 27, 2006

"Start worrying. Details to follow," goes the quintessential Jewish telegram. Some strange sense that things might go awfully awry still hangs over the Israeli political scene a day before the vital vote: Indeed, one left-wing group took out a full-page ad in Ha'aretz to ask voters to envision what the headlines might look like if a low turnout tomorrow gives decisive victory to the "orange" right wing-the settlers and their supporters. This is but one of several surprising outcomes that cannot be entirely ruled out-some of them more worrying than others.

This has been a surprisingly sedate campaign, almost surreal in its tranquility (except for one Labor Party worker who was killed when trying to hang a banner from an electricity pole), given the magnitude of the issues at stake, the scope of the political revolution inherent in the dramatic rise of Kadima as the dominant party in the polls, and the shocks we have been subjected to within the last few weeks-from the stroke that incapacitated prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to the Hamas victory that all but killed what was left of the peace process. Still, the debate did not go far beyond some personal mud-slinging and a few serious attempts to reframe the issues.

Moreover, of the major developments that could have given a vital edge to the right-wing camp-i.e., the aggregate of Likud, which seems set to do poorly; of the two right-wing parties, which seem set to do well, namely, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our Home") Party and the National Religious Party/National Union alliance; and of the two ultra-Orthodox, and increasingly nationalist, parties with their solid base of support, the Sephardi Shas Party and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism-two salient prospects have, in fact, failed to materialize:

      • There has been, so far, no wave of terror (not for lack of trying, by Islamic Jihad and some Fatah activists, who seem keen on embarrassing Hamas, but are not highly accomplished in keeping their plans to themselves.)

      • Another threat to Kadima might have come from the international arena, had there been a stampede to break ranks and speak to Hamas. But since the first players to do so, the Russians and the Turks, garnered no results at all, there was little appetite in Europe to be humiliated by Khalid Mish`al (or to humiliate Ehud Olmert) in the same fashion. It is telling that one of Binyamin Netanyahu's supporters saw fit to mention Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's lame excuse of a paper-"The Israel Lobby"-as proof that Israel's standing in America has been ruined rather than rescued by the Disengagement, but this simply indicates that this weak reed is all that this theory can latch on to, at this stage at least.

Thus, the one element that could still lift the right to power-or, at least, disable Olmert from putting together a viable center-left coalition, if he so wishes-could come the other way: not through disaster or political passion, but through boredom. If enough complacent centrists, particularly disaffected young people, stay home, the well-organized and highly committed right may well surge to within reach of the necessary 61 Knesset seats.

Even if this does not happen (and the odds are that it will not, as this would require a collapse of Kadima to fewer than 30 seats, since Labor, Meretz, and the Arab parties are almost certain to have at least 30, perhaps up to 35, among them), the drift to the right could mean that Olmert would not be able, or willing, to govern without bringing in at least one major partner from the right, making Kadima the center rather than the far-right edge of the next government. Such a partner could come in the form of one or more of the three following players, none of whom would offer an easy alliance for Olmert to strike or to maintain:

1. A "new" Likud, with Netanyahu removed by the magnitude of the party's failure (some polls speak of 13 seats-a sad remnant of what once was Israel's dominant party) and a more conciliatory person, such as Sylvan Shalom, installed as leader. Given the prominence of hard-right voices within the party list, however, this could lead to a further split, rendering Likud useless as an ally.

2. The dark horse of this election, Lieberman, who ran on two interwoven messages-redrawing the borders so as to leave many Israeli Arabs on the Palestinian side; and fighting crime with an iron fist-might end up with the support of much more than his Russian immigrant power base. If so, the pressure to look upon him as a partner, despite his troubling style, might become irresistible. He may not be familiar to the great majority of American Jews, and his abrasive style is problematic, but the cost of co-opting him may be less destructive, in the long run, than the alternative.

3. The latter, indeed, would be Shas-whose return to positions of power may well ignite not only the debate over child allowances, putting a dangerous strain on social and economic policies that Netanyahu, to his credit, managed to correct; but also over the bitter divisions about the ultra-Orthodox dodging of military service, exacerbating the already troubled relationship with the non-Orthodox denominations.

None of this may seem particularly appetizing, but Israeli politics has always produced strange fellowships. Unless a very dramatic reversal in voting patterns brings a new surge of voters to Kadima at the last moment, it will be necessary for all of us to adjust to a complex reality, and equally complicated choices, in the days ahead.

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