Now that all the major (and not so major) Israeli political parties – except for front-running Kadima and lesser-light Labor – have held their primaries, the stage is almost set for the upcoming March 28 elections to Israel’s 17th Kenesset. With PM Ariel Sharon’s coma unrelenting, the entire political field has come to terms with the gaping absence of the one-man cult following. A campaign government can now be assembled by acting PM Ehud Olmert, who because of Likud-ministerial resignations and a ruling by the Israeli Attorney General now holds a whopping 15 ministerial positions.
One outcome of last week's primaries is the pathetic dissolution of the once promising Shinui party. Shinui ("Change"), which came into existence as a centrist anti-religious party in 1999 under the leader ship of the Ross Perot wannabe Tomi Lapid, has all but collapsed. Another surprise was when Likud party members chose a list of candidates that stunned even Benjamin Netanyahu for its unmarketability. Netanyahu, the former PM and successful Likud standard-bearer in 1996, knows something about winning a campaign against what looks like impossible odds - back in the Spring of 1996 he narrowly beat Shimon Peres in an election called by Peres in the wake of the Rabin assassination, when initially the pollls presaged an easy Peres victory. This time, however, Netanyahu leads a denuded Likud, and in the absence of a full-blown terrorist campaign by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the coming 2 months, it is hard to imagine Netanyahu surging ahead as he did in 1996.
But the biggest surprise of all last week was the apparent collapse of Labor, under the leadership of Amir Peretz, who initiated this entire improbable electoral scenario when he narrowly beat Shimon Peres for chairmanship of the Labor Party two months ago, and then immediately demanded that Labor withdraw from the Sharon government.
The latest poll published by Haaretz has Labor collapsing to a historic low of 14-16 seats in the 120-seat Kenesset. This is a drop of more than 10 seats from the polls taken just after the formation of Kadima. The disarray is palpable – Peretz has dismissed two campaign directors in as many weeks, and complaints abound over the initial public advertising campaign intended to introduce Peretz to the Israeli electorate. But the real issue concerning the Peretz slump is what the media calls the “race demon” which hangs over this Morrocan immigrant’s campaign. More than one Israeli mentioned to me the fact that Peretz cannot speak a word of English – which is code in Israeli politics for “uneducated” and “lower class” (see: Levy, David). As one senior Labor operative on behalf of Peretz said to me: “People are afraid he will not be able to talk to Bush except through an interpreter. But the truth is, Bush can’t speak English all that well either.” Even Labor optimists understand that Peretz will not be tapped by President Moshe Katzav to form the next Israeli government – at most the optimists cling to the hope that 25 seats for Labor is within striking distance – if Labor reverses course and mounts an effective campaign. For all the drama of a campaign, it is hard to imagine Peretz receiving anything more for all his efforts than to come begging to Kadima for the Ministry of Education. If Labor is offered one or two of the big three ministries – Foreign Affairs, Treasury, or Defense – it is certain that Peretz will personally not fill any of those crucial posts. More and more, I am convinced that Olmert will offer defense to his old friend Ehud Barak, and that will be the best that Labor can expect. And if the two big parties cannot make it to the mandated 61-seat majority necessary to form a government, either other secular parties or some religious parties will need to be offered ministerial party favors in order to form a coalition. Old-fashioned Israeli rug-trading will then be in full swing.
So here is my prediction: the new government will be made up of Olmert as PM, Zipi Livni (Kadima) as Foreign Secretary (this Olmert has already promised), Ehud Barak (Labor) as Defense Minister, and Avishai Braverman (a new Labor figure; economist and former President of Ben Gurion University) as Treasury Minister, Peretz (Labor) as Education Minister. Shimon Peres (Kadima) will be a Minister-at-Large.