Friday, February 6, 2009

The Old Shell Game

I'm sure you've all been waiting with bated breath for me to write something about the Israeli elections. Stam. So, with four days to go, the final polls having been released showing enough undecided/none of the above voters to cause an upset and because I'd hate to disappoint my fans, both of you, here's what things look like.

Bibi Netanyahu is most likely the next Prime Minister. The only serious debate is whether he will reach out to Labor and, maybe, Kadima to form a center-right unity government or simply put together a right wing coalition with the likes of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties. Lieberman's been gaining in all the polls at the expense of Bibi's Likud party. This has created an outside chance that Tzipi Livni will form the next government. You might recall that she failed to form a government last Fall (which is why Israel is having an election). For reasons I'll get to in a bit, she's even less likely to be able to form a government over the next couple of months. So, even if she wins, she loses and Bibi will get to be Prime Minister. However, if you like to root for upsets, then the sight of Livni in Tel Aviv clubs trying to convince voters (and herself) that she's changed (there's that word again) from a true daughter of the militant right to the Jewish Hillary Clinton, should keep you entertained. Hey, the Arizona Cardinals, a team that had no business being in the game at all, came within 36 seconds of winning the Super Bowl, so anything can happen.

The reason Bibi Netanyahu is most likely the next Prime Minister is because of the one sure thing that will happen next Tuesday. Israeli voters will continue to move to the right. The trend that began with the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001 will continue with a vengeance. The pollsters predict that the "right" will have anywhere from 64 to 68 mandates (a mandate being one of the 120 seats in the Knesset - don't ask) while the "left" will have the rest. But the election will not really be that close. First of all, the "left" gets 54 to 56 mandates only if you count Kadima as a left wing party and include the two Arab and one Arab-Jewish parties. Kadima, which consists mainly of people who followed Sharon out of Likud and a handful of conservative ex-Laborites, is only a left wing organization if you are Rush Limbaugh or a commentator on Fox News. The Arab parties have no chance of being asked to join a governing coalition. So, what remains of a left in Israel will actually have 20 to 25 mandates, depending again on whose poll you are reading. So Livni 's Kadima party may wind up with the most mandates but without right wing parties will not be able to form a coalition of 61 or more mandates. If the right wing parties refuse to join a Livni-led coalition, President Peres will have to ask Bibi to form a government. Even if Livni manages to form a government the coalition will have so many parties with such conflicting agendas that the conventional wisdom is that such a government will fall in less than a year. Which means I get to write to you about an election during nest year's trip to Israel. Are we having fun yet?

The lynch pin here is Lieberman. He's the guy running on the slogan "No citizenship without loyalty." Last week Liz and I went to an Election forum for Anglos. Danny Ayalon, a former ambassador to the US and now a candidate on the Yisrael Beteinu list, defended Lieberman's position saying it was not a racist attack on Arabs but merely an expression of the need for national unity. He points out that Lieberman is not proposing to expel Arabs or to put them in camps, a la the US imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WW II, only to somehow limit their citizenship rights, like being able to run for the Knesset. He said this with a straight face. Now I know what it must have been like to live in Europe during the rise of fascism or in the US under McCarthy. Even more depressing is the fact that Lieberman's is not the furthest right party with a chance to win mandates. What Ayalon didn't say is whether the same loyalty test would apply to Jewish MKs and Rabbis who urge soldiers to mutiny if ordered to remove settlers from the West Bank. Since Lieberman lives in a West Bank settlement I imagine that such activity is not going to be considered "disloyal." Lieberman's party is now generally expected to get close to if not more than 20 mandates, leaving Lieberman in a strong position to make or break the next coalition. Russians love Lieberman, himself a Russian emigre. Then again, Russians are also nostalgic for Stalin and the Czars.

So we enter the last few days of the campaign with Bibi making speeches about how a vote for Lieberman is really a vote for Livni but covers his right flank by declaiming that loyalty to the state is the responsibility of every citizen. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has challenged Lieberman's strong man status by reminding voters that Barak is the country's most decorated soldier and asking. "Who has Lieberman ever killed?" Livni, not one to miss a chance to pander, has also declared that every citizen should be required to serve in the military or perform national service (something that almost everyone has to do except the Arabs and the Haredim). But don't worry about our ultra-Orthodox brethren. Every election campaign includes a pledge from the center/left secular parties that this time they will repeal the Tal Law and make the Haredim do national service. Then they remember that they need Shas to form a coalition and that ends that. And, speaking of Shas, Lieberman is so scary that Ovadia Yosef, the party's spiritual leaders has been quoted as saying that no observant Jew can vote for Lieberman (while the Rabbi's daughter-in-law holds women-only election rallies where they chant "Yes We Can).

And, speaking of pandering, the real professional here may be Ehud Barak. Besides the entire Operation Cast Lead as the centerpiece of his election campaign, Barak reached out to settlers by making a deal to resolve the Migron case. Migron is a settlement of about 50 families that is built on what the Israel Supreme Court has ruled to be private Palestinian land. Barak, who, as Defense Minister, is in charge of civil administration in the occupied territories, promised, along with Prime Minister Olmert, to remove Migron and return the land to its rightful owners within eight months. That promise was made in January 2008. Migron is still there. Now it comes out that Barak and the settlers have agreed to the construction of a new neighborhood on the West Bank to which the Migron families will voluntarily move. The new neighborhood will be part of Adam, a settlement that already exists east of the separation fence. The new Adam neighborhood will have an initial tender to build 250 homes (plus schools, synagogues, commercial space, etc) as part of an overall plan to build about 1400 housing units. The first 50 homes, expected to be available in about three years, will go to residents of Migron. But, considering that Bibi and Lieberman will form the next government, if I lived in Migron the last thing I would be doing is packing my bags. The settlers were, of course, happy to agree to yet again expand the settlements. The entertaining but sad part of this tale will come when Bibi tries to convince George Mitchell that by not approving construction of the final 1000 housing units approved for Adam, Israel will have reduced its settlement activity. Oh well, at least Rahm Emanuel will some day be able to tell a funny story about how he got to teach President Obama how to say "bullshit" in Hebrew.

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