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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Israel's Political Malaise Reaches the Terminal Stage

It's been a week since Israel went to the polls, and there still is no government. Instead there are a motley collection of parties, alliances and leaders-- all jockeying for their place in line in a hypothetical government that may be formed.

First in line we have Livni, clueless and inexperienced, whose only asset was that she was and wasn't actually the Prime Minister, allowing her to maintain plausible deniability for the corruption and incompetence of her government.

Kadima, her party, had been formed by Sharon as a way to destroy Israel's two governing parties, Labor and Likud, replacing them with a one man state. When Sharon's aging body finally gave out, his closest sidekick Ehud Olmert, replaced him and kept the kleptocracy going. When Olmert seemed set to finally begin paying for his crimes, his own sidekick, Livni took his place for the electorate's sake. And somehow in the process dragged Kadima to a legislative victory.

Considering that Kadima was little more than a crime ring composed of former Likud and Labor Knesset members which illegally seized the Prime Minister's chair, with the collusion of the attorney general. Considering that Kadima's Prime Minister was under indictment, and his predecessor only escaped that same fate by way of a coma. Considering that Kadima's major triumph, the forcibly ethnic cleansing of the Jewish residents of Gaza paved the way for the creation of a Hamas state and the shelling of Ashkelon. Considering that Kadima had presided over three failed military campaigns, two against Hamas, one against Hezbollah without actually rescuing a single Israeli POW...

...Kadima's victory was proof of one of three things. Divine intervention. Massive voter fraud. Or the willingness of the average Israeli to be convinced that voting for a "Centrist" party was the right thing to do because the media told him so. The overall results however suggested a fourth course. While many in the conservative camp were rejoicing over the loss of seats by left wing parties, it's safe to say that what the likes of Meretz lost, Kadima gained, because Kadima has demonstrated that it can actually fulfill the goals that Meretz MK's can only impotently rant about. When Livni announced that Israel would have to give up half its land, she made it quite clear that the old left had made way for a more practical left.

Livni, like much of Kadima's Ex-Likudniks including Olmert himself, ably demonstrated the fallacy of nepotism within the ranks of the Likud. Among that second generation of the sons and daughters of Herut stalwarts, Netanyahu is the best of a bad lot. And that isn't saying a lot.

It is an ironic piece of Israeli history that Sharon, once a member of a thuggish left wing movement that beat Jewish Zionist youth, managed to worm his way high up into the Likud, and proceeded to destroy Begin's Prime Ministership, while handing Israel its first true military disaster in Lebanon-- resurrected his political career to do it a second time by delivering a near fatal blow to the Likud, and surrendering Gaza to Hamas.

With Kadima, Sharon's hubris gave way to boundless corruption. Now Kadima isn't quite dead, but despite winning a victory, its hopes of actually being a ruling party are low. Livni faces the choice between a unity government with Netanyahu, playing second fiddle to him, or trying to hold a place in the opposition, despite not having any real ideology, besides cowardly expediency.

Second in line, we have Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud. It's still up in the air whether Netantyahu really won or lost the election. There are few people inside Israel who are particularly enthusiastic about Netanyahu, and while much of that is the work of a media hate campaign, plenty of it can be laid at Netanyahu's own door. In the election people didn't so much vote Likud, as vote not-Kadima and not-Labor. Netanyahu has some credibility as an economic reformer, but it's a bad time for a free marketer to run for office, and on defense, Netanyahu doesn't walk the walk, or even talk the talk.

Post-election Netanyahu has worked hard to remind people of why they had to grit their teeth to vote for him in the first place. The election results left the Likud in the best position to form a new government, an advantage Netanyahu has worked hard to squander in the seven days since then. Time and time again, Netanyahu has managed to project the opposite of decisive, and is currently playing the same political games that undermined the Likud in the first place.

With Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu emerging as the decisive player in any likely coalition, Netanyahu has instead been edging toward a unity government with Kadima. It is unclear if this is a maneuver to bargain Lieberman down to a more reasonable set of demands, or whether Netanyahu really is prepared to get in bed with Kadima. Considering that Kadima was created by robbing the Likud ranks blind, and that any financial reforms are impossible with Kadima in a unity government, the whole thing becomes an absurd charade.

Meanwhile the religious parties offer a supercoalition of religious parties as a third alternative. Of course this coalition is likely to last almost as long as an Israeli cabbie's patience. When even the Haredi parties couldn't work together long enough to win the Jerusalem Mayorality, the idea of such an alliance lasting past the first budget debate is equally absurd. The only advantage is that the Haredi parties are far simpler to deal with than Lieberman. They just want money. Lieberman wants money and power.

The choices aren't easy, and Netanyahu has a poor history of being able to make them. Netanyahu must cobble together a coalition that will survive through some turbulent times and tough decisions. Keeping your enemies close is one dictum of Israeli politics, and between Lieberman and Livni, he has a lot of enemies to choose from.


Time and time again Netanyahu has demonstrated that he can win Likud primaries. He's had a much poorer track record at winning national elections. Even if Netanyahu winds up become Prime Minister, he's made a weak start that reinforces all the negative stereotypes Israelis already hold about him. 

But that's just the beginning.

Israel is now more isolated than ever, and the old American alliance has turned dark and poisonous with Obama's ascension. Iran is accelerating its drive to destroy Israel, arming Hamas and Hizbullah with ever more sophisticated weapons for a proxy war, while racing to build and deploy its own nuclear weapons.

Any Prime Minister will have to resist a great deal of pressure, as well as tackling domestic economic problems. He will also have to deal with the Lebanon and Gaza problems, as well as Iran, and resist pressure to concede the Golan Heights to Syria, and recognize and negotiate with Hamas.

Not since 1948 or 1967 has Israel faced a collection of threats of this magnitude. And never has the leadership quotient been lacking as badly.

The real threat to Israel however comes from the apathy of the general public. The average Israeli remains unconvinced, despite everything, that anything bad will really happen. Going back to 1992 if you made even fairly conservative predictions to the average Israeli about the expansion of terrorism based on policies of concession, he was likely to dismiss it out of hand.

Not much has changed. That same man on the street will concede that the government may be negotiating to hand over Jerusalem, but will dismiss that too with a wave of his hand, saying that it will never happen. In that same way he has dismissed the prospect of Gaza shelling, Arafat's militias going on terrorist rampages, and Israel being cut in half. Call it a coping strategy for the shell shocked, but it is the soul of Israeli politics.

Excluding the committed right and the committed left, the average Israeli is both dissatisfied and complacent. General disgust merges with apathy, sometimes giving way to a brief bout of cheerleading one party or another. This swing vote has made Israeli politics a particularly dizzying and incoherent indoor sport.

The man on the street does not understand or care much for the ideologies of the right and the left. He likes the center because it seems safe, and is always open to the lure of third parties because he doesn't trust the establishment parties. Of course the successful third parties such as Kadima are themselves products of the establishment, but by the time he figures that out, the damage has usually been done.

Meanwhile Israel's party centered, rather than region centered political system, insures that single issue voters will have a field day, and that the political system will have to deal with the fallout. In a system where anyone can start a party, and where parties routinely disintegrate into two or three parties, the potential for chaos, mischief and disillusionment is virtually endless.

But the real legacy of the 2009 election, whatever its outcome may be, is that the same political personalities who have been plaguing Israeli politics all these years, have learned nothing, and are too busy pushing and shoving each other to do anything productive. Everyone from the great to the small, has demonstrated a horrifying willingness to put their own personal ambitions ahead of country and ideals. The disgusting political bickering and maneuvering that preceded the election has given way to the disgusting political bickering and maneuvering on display in the week since the election. And the bottom line is that very little has changed.

The Israeli public may have voted more to the right, but their votes appear to have hardly made a difference. Instead of an election what we got was a circus, complete with betrayals and double dealing worthy of a dozen soap operas, and lists filled with the same smirking politicians we were sick of 15 years ago, augmented by models, celebrities, self-proclaimed activists, and random Russian immigrants that every party running hoped would be enough to sway the Russian vote.

While Kadima and the Likud both celebrate their victories, Hamas' shells burn on Israeli soil, and neither party has any serious plan for dealing with that. And so while the 2009 election may not doom Israel, but it won't save it either. Nothing short of a revolution may do that.

6 comments:

Keli Ata said...

I hate to say it but a revolution may well be necessary to save Israel. The trouble is, how much time do Israelis who love the land have left to mount a revolution?

I feel as though the clock is ticking, the pendulum swinging closer and closer; chose whatever metaphor you like Israel is running out of time to avert a horrible tragedy.

Mrs. Anna T said...

"Meanwhile the religious parties offer a supercoalition of religious parties as a third alternative. Of course this coalition is likely to last almost as long as an Israeli cabbie's patience."

Haha. Yep. The religious parties could hold some sort of influence, if they weren't so busy bickering with one another.

Cosmic X said...

Great post Sultan. I can't say that I agree with everything you wrote, but this was a good and interesting read. I am amazed that someone on the other side of the ocean has such a good feel of what is going on over here.

Sultan Knish said...

I wasn't and I'm not always on the other side of the ocean

Anonymous said...

...Kadima's victory was proof of one of three things. Divine intervention.
I tend to the first one, so is Obama's winning--a man who came from nowhere and going nowhere. It is all scripted and going into one direction. Of course we have choices but as you wrote, the middle Israeli is apathetic. If they didn't throw the gov. after Lebanon war and if they elected the same Kadima with 29 mandates after the second blatant election war ... it's all "min ha shamayim"

Anonymous said...

If there is revolution in Israel, milllons of sympathethic folk in the United States will follow Israel's lead. Israel and her descendants have been leading for a long, long time. Get ready to rummmmblllle!

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