Two Men, Two Agendas-And a Bad Way of Putting Together a Government

April 3, 2006

The spin is mightier than the sword, goes the postmodern saying; and never more so than during this bizarre political period in Israel:

  • On the one hand, a party that was not even in existence five months ago—namely, Ehud Olmert's (and formerly Ariel Sharon's) Kadima—gained more Knesset seats, 29, than any other, but is nevertheless being "spun" as having "lost it," or at least to as being bitterly disappointed, because its much higher hopes did not come through.
  • On the other hand, the Labor Party, led by Amir Peretz, ended up with 19 seats, three fewer than it had in the previous Knesset—or, to be precise, than Labor had jointly with Peretz's small faction, the trade union party named "Am Ehad," which reunited with its mother party, and in effect, took over. Still, the media is full of stories about Labor's "victory," and Peretz apparently began to feel equally entitled to try to put together a "social emergency" government, perhaps even with the far right as his coalition partners.

Or did he? The latest spin is that this, too, was a spin—an attempt to inform Olmert that the Labor Party should not be taken for granted, and that Olmert's curt dismissal of the prospect of Peretz taking the Finance portfolio was a mistake. Olmert was apparently eager to calm the financial markets, who fear the rise of a "tax and spend" coalition government, undoing the painful but successful reforms enacted by Binyamin Netanyahu; but the manner in which the word was put out angered Peretz, a seasoned and tough negotiator, and sent him "spinning" in the opposite direction.

Theoretically, he could indeed put together a coalition without Kadima—if (a big if) he and his party were willing to swallow a strange partnership, which would include:

  1. The religious right, the ultra-Orthodox parties—i.e., United Torah Judaism (6 seats), which would settle for yeshiva budgets and "synagogue and state" issues, such as restrictions on the non-Orthodox denominations; and Shas (12 seats), which has a socioeconomic agenda as well, and like Peretz himself, claims to speak for the downtrodden Sephardi poor.
  2. The political (i.e., nationalist) right wing, namely Likud (presumably after they ditch the much-maligned Netanyahu) with 12 seats, and the National Union- National Religious Party list, with 9: The cost here would be the agreed-upon abandonment of all hopes for progress on the Palestinian front (arguing that Hamas would be in power anyway) and focusing instead on the "social emergency," the redistribution of wealth, and by definition, on blocking Olmert's version of further unilateral withdrawals, the so-called "Convergence Plan."
  3. Finally, the Pensioners Party, with its astounding 7 seats (some coming from frustrated young Israelis who found an elegant way to protest) would presumably bring this strange crew to 65 seats.

It did not take long for all this fervent math to dissipate. The Pensioners told President Moshe Katzav that they would support Olmert; and, indeed, their party is very much a centrist element, like Kadima (with the added, and largely legitimate, concern over the level of Social Security support for the elderly and often destitute sector of society). Shas read through Peretz's tactics and was wary of lending itself to a power game—and then being cast aside. Moreover, Olmert had already promised them no less than four portfolios if they join him at an early stage. Add the UTJ, and then Avigdor Lieberman's 11 seats (unlike the National Union/NRP, he is in favor of partition—albeit on terms that many Arabs would find offensive), and Olmert could theoretically counter with a 65-seat coalition of his own, without the right and without the Zionist left or the Arab parties.

Both exclusionary scenarios are clearly suboptimal. Most Israelis would like to see a stable and largely like-minded block comprised of Kadima, Labor, the Pensioners, and Meretz (to the left of Labor), which already have 60 seats between them; along with Shas (or Lieberman, who would be less disruptive in terms of the present economic policy) added for balance on the right, but not in a position to dictate terms. Sadly, the rough jockeying for position in advance of negotiations seems to have put these hopes on hold.

But there was more to this mini-crisis than a clash of personalities. What led Olmert and Peretz onto a collision course was also the real difference in their underlying agendas. For Olmert, the grand project of national security (and identity)— the drawing of Israel's future borders—is the overriding issue; and as a strong proponent of Israel's economic growth strategy, he also seeks to limit the scope of the modifications in fiscal policy that would be imposed on his government (and might endanger Israel's standing in the global economy). Meanwhile, Peretz felt vindicated in his claim that the election results, including the rise of Shas and the Pensioners, bespeak a wish on the part of the Israeli public at large to cast aside the hopeless questions of the Arab-Israeli conflict and turn to matters of everyday life—the economy (stupid!), national cohesion, and religious identity—and to undo the divisive effects, not only of the Disengagement last summer, but also of the harsh measures taken to reduce government subsidies and child allowances. This "social agenda" is what seemed, for a moment, to legitimize Peretz's bid for power.

Reactions came fast and furious, and as these lines are being written the Labor Party is busy walking away from the wreckage—and claiming that the decision of the National Union/NRP, to recommend to the president that Peretz be the one assigned to put together a government, was entirely of their own volition and not some shoddy Labor trick. At the end of the day, we can expect Peretz to agree to meet Olmert (which he initially refused to do!) and for serious negotiations to start soon. What we have learned, in any case, is that this type of terribly fragmented politics is a poor way of putting together a government: Yet a Knesset in which the three major parties-Kadima, Labor, and Likud—comprise precisely half the house is not likely to agree to constitutional changes that would consolidate the political map and undo the smaller parties. In other words, this is going to be a long and troubled month, and it is not quite certain that there will be a functional coalition in sight by early May—and even beyond that, the stability of any government formed is going to be much in doubt.

We must also bear in mind that, at any point, this wrangling over agendas could be undone by a rude awakening. It could be a Katyusha, no longer just a "mere" Qassam, falling on an Ashkelon schoolyard or a sensitive strategic facility, such as the world's largest desalinization plant. (One such rocket with a 21-kilometer range was already launched toward Ashkelon on Election Day, but did no damage.) It could be another successful terror attack, like the one that this week took the lives of four—a couple, Rafi and Helena Halevy, and two young people who rode with them, blown up and incinerated when a suicide bomber, dressed as a yeshiva student, detonated within their car, murdering the people who gave him a lift. It could be a dramatic rise in tensions in the north, as Iran pushes Hizballah to demonstrate what may happen if the nuclear issue heats up. The pleasures of political spinning may be short-lived.

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