The worst thing to happen to the Israeli left was not the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu, who managed somehow to win the first Israeli election after Oslo and then find the political acumen to take Likud back to power after Ariel Sharon bolted the party. It was not the eventual end of the Israeli left’s one-party rule, for such a political monopoly could not have gone on forever in a democracy, and if it had it would have corrupted the movement from unaccountability. No, the worst thing to happen to the Israeli left was the Palestinian leadership, which humiliated Israeli peacemaker after Israeli peacemaker until the country could no longer watch the ritual humiliations.
The last such humiliation wasn’t all that long ago. It was when, battered by a failed premiership, a mistake-ridden war effort, unpopularity that seemed to have no floor, and the murmurings of corruption scandals, Kadima leader Ehud Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas the store. And the final indignity was that Abbas didn’t even attempt to renegotiate or engage the offer in any way. He simply walked away. Now that Netanyahu has called for early elections to take place this winter, Olmert has returned—maybe—as the great hope of those on the Israeli left who cannot bear the thought of another four years of Netanyahu, who has presided over relative peace, security, and tranquility, but who they don’t like, with his perfect English and his Republican friends.
This desire to be rid of Netanyahu for the chance to duplicate the wild errors of the Olmert years has led some commentators to say things that don’t seem to be particularly well thought through. Thus we have the comment in Haaretz from David Landau that, if Olmert decides to run after everything he has put himself and his country through, he “will have demonstrated, to his supporters and his traducers alike, that confronted once more with a conflict of interest, he chose the national interest.”
Yes Olmert, one month removed from sentencing stemming from his conviction on the charge of breach of trust, is somehow the paragon of selflessness and self-sacrifice that Israel needs to save itself from its honest, but oh-so-rightist, prime minister.
As it happens, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Olmert is currently not polling so well. He has not spent the requisite time out of the spotlight to fully rehabilitate his image, and Israelis, keen on political competition but wary of those at the helm in the frustrating and fateful summer of 2006, so far seem to prefer Netanyahu. That may change, certainly—Olmert has not even formally thrown his hat in the ring yet. But as of this week, the Associated Press reports:
The centrist Kadima, which currently holds 28 seats in parliament, would tumble to just six or seven places, while the Independence Party, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, would win no more than two seats, according to the polls. Haaretz said only 15 percent of voters would want Barak, a one-time prime minister, back in the top job.
The rejuvenated Labor Party, led by a former television journalist Shelly Yachimovich promoting social welfare issues, would win 17 to 19 seats — more than double its current eight, the polls predicted.
Political newcomer Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party would win 11 to 17 seats, according to the polls. Lapid, also a former TV commentator, has portrayed himself as representing everyday middle class Israelis.
What is an “everyday middle class Israeli” in a country that barely has a middle class to begin with? No matter, Lapid will be in an interesting position if this holds, since he is a vague enough newcomer that he could conceivably join almost any governing coalition. But if he does so, he will lose his one opportunity to brand his party and his movement—in Israel the branding takes place in exile, not as someone else’s rubber stamp.
Those polls show Netanyahu’s Likud and current coalition partners, which include Shas and Israel Beiteinu, holding together about 62 to 68 seats, which means they could potentially strengthen their current coalition without having to expand it to other parties. Again, it’s still early, but the left has two fresh faces in Yachimovich and Lapid who are poised to make a serious run in the next election. For the leftist commentariat, putting their hope in Olmert instead is a strange gamble. It may pay off, but it also may very well backfire in spectacular fashion.