Because of the consistent participation in Israel’s Knesset elections of new, ill-defined, and self-styled “centrist” parties, it can be difficult to accurately apply the labels “left” and “right” until after each election. Nonetheless, yesterday’s Israeli Knesset elections clearly represent a leftward shift. How far left? That remains to be seen. The election, as Evelyn noted, was about domestic issues and not the peace process. This is beneficial for Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike.
But because the resurgent Labor Party–which performed as well as it did because it has learned to downplay Oslo in favor of bread-and-butter issues–has more to gain long-term by staying out of the next governing coalition and regrouping and recruiting some more, the leftward shift will be most clearly felt on issues of religious identity. Simply put, the ultra-Orthodox will be up against something of a secular mandate. But all this will sort itself out in the coming weeks as coalition forming and its attendant horse-trading begins. The more interesting question for now is: Could the liberal American press, which hysterically predicted that the election would create a suicidally fascistic government, have known all along how wrong they were? The answer is yes–they just needed to learn a bit of Israeli history.
This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.
Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?
That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:
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.
Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.
But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.