Monday, December 12, 2005

An early read of the Israeli elections

My goodness. Is there anyone else left in Likud? Now that Tzachi Hanegbi and Shaul Mofaz have both belatedly jumped ship to Ariel Sharon's vanity party Kadima, it looks ever more likely that a Kadima-Labor coalition of significantly more than 60 MKs will greet the world on March 29, 2006. And now that the Sunday Times of London reports that Sharon has given the green light to the IDF to prepare for a late March attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment sites, the scene is set for a repeat of Menahem Begin's 1981 pre-election sabre rattling attack on Osirak, Saddam's nuclear facility, which iced a close election for Likud. Sharon, then part of Begin's inner circle, has learned a lesson or two about how to look strong on election eve. All that is left of Likud are the "rebels" and a struggle between Silvan Shalom and Binyamin Netanyahu for the right to lead Likud to crushing irrelevancy, reducing Likud to a numerical force in the Kenesset not seen since Begin's Herut party of the 1950's.

But all is not clear-sailing for an uneventful election campaign. The terrorist attacks and short-range missile launches (and the requsite Israeli response of targeted killings and air attacks in Gaza) of the last few days futher enhances Kadima's chances with the Israeli electorate. Even Labor leader Amir Peretz, whose career and platform rest on a social agenda, has been forced to sound a hawkish, security-first, tone. The key issue of the March 2006 election will thus be security and foreign policy, not Sheli Yachimovitch's economic agenda.

The question is: if a pragmatic centrist coalition of Kadima and Labor wins handily, will there be a concommitant outcome in the Palestinian Authority's legislative elections scheduled for January 25 (though a delay is possible, given the problems at the Palestinian election polls last week). Zeev Schiff of Haaretz (who often represents the "wisdom" of the Israeli defense establishment) has recently declared Abu Mazen a failure, or to use Ehud Barak's old phrase, "not a partner." If Abu Mazen's correct effort to co-opt Hamas and other Islamists into the civic process results in a victory for Hamas in January, this too will work in Sharon's favor, but it would mean that the "road map" approach endorsed by Sharon is dead. Then expect more unilateral moves in the West Bank, akin to the Gaza disengagement of the summer of 2005. Either way, a Sharon-led coalition can stand up to the settler movement, but a Peretz-led coalition will lack the backbone and credibility to make the hard play.

Personally -- and I can't believe I am writing these words -- as of this moment I would (if I could) pull the lever for Sharon.

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