Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Post-Election Gloating

Sometimes I amaze even myself. Did I call it or did I call it? The exit polls in Israel are now published, and more than 99% of the actual votes have been counted, and it looks like some of my last-minute predictions in a blog posting written 40 hours before the election were right on the money. Ariel Sharon's strange political experiment called Kadima significantly underperformed from its expected results....from a high of 44 projected seats in mid-January, Kadima and Ehud Omert looks to get no more than 28 seats, significantly less than the 37 seats predicted by the last round of media polls. Labor did about as well as the polling predicted, with 20 seats - making it the senior partner in any Olmert-led coalition, but falling short of the hoped-for 25 seats.

I wrote I would eat my hat if Benjamin Netanyahu did better than the polls suggested - and the results have him and former power-house Likud in shambles (at 11 seats), making it no more than a small boutique party, fifth in size. Likud, the recent ruling party that Sharon crafted together in the mid-70s and by which Menahem Begin brought about a political revolution in 1977, is now a train wreck. Because of its poor showing, some veteran politicians on the Likud list will not be serving in the 17th Kenesset. Such prominent names as Israel Katz and Uzi Landau will not make it into the parliament. It is not that hard-right Israelis suddenly disappeared from this election - they simply abandoned Likud and the feckless Netanyahu for more reliable advocates of the hard right's distrust of any compromise with Hamas and the Arab world. Netanyahu, who is the most American-style politician in Israel, proved he was no "comeback kid."

I also predicted that something was amiss in the polling data for either Shas or Yisrael Beyteinu, and I got that right too - both did much better than the polls predicted.

One thing I did not foresee was the sudden emergence of the party Gimla'im le-Ma'ankha (Pensioners for You - Gil for short), led by ex-master spy Rafi Eitan (aged 79). One of Gil's key foreign policy demands (in a platform otherwise comparable to the AARP agenda) is that the Israeli government push for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the American-Jewish US Naval Intelligence officer turned Israeli spy (by Eitan) who has been rotting in an American prison for over 10 years. Other than that, Eitan is quoted in the media as being in favor of a territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

These exit polls are not always reliable, and over the course of the next few days many of the numbers can change slightly. But it looks like barely-winner Ehud Olmert will have a government in fairly short order. This was no resounding victory for Olmert, and how he now parcels out ministries will determine whether he is going for strength and stability or convenient back-room maneuvering. Olmert has made clear his desire to set Israel's borders (unilaterally if need be) along the security fence line, uprooting some 60,000 Jewish settlers in the process, and he promises to pull Israel back to such a line by 2010, with or without Palestinian acquiesence. I think he cannot pull it off, but it is a sad comment that such a meager solution is what passes for leftist politics in the post-Sharon, post-Gaza, post-Arafat world.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Pre-Election Wrap-up

With less than 48 hours to go before polls open in Israel, the moment of truth has arrived for the untested political affair-of-convenience called Kadima. In these crucial final hours, the volatile and unpredictable Israeli electorate is making up its mind, and the sizable bloc of undecided voters is finally paying attention to this exceedingly uneventful election. Based on previous instances, polling data is now useless. We've got to use our gut to make a prediction. So here goes (and of course, if there is a last-second terror event, all predictions are invalidated) - Kadima is not going to do nearly as well as the polls indicate. Kadima has made some serious errors in the final days of campaigning, and many voters will simply return to their historically comfortable political homes rather than bet on a dubious and inexperienced PM candidate and a vague platform. Coalition calculations will play a large factor in the polling. Everyone understands that later this week Kadima's Ehud Olmert will be appointed with the task of forming the next Israeli government -- but what that government looks like will have a lot to do with how Israelis choose their parties on Tuesday. My bet is that without Sharon at the helm, many of those former Labor voters who indicated support for Kadima in the polls will have a last minute change of heart. Thus, if my suspicion that Kadima will underperform the predicted 35-37 seats is correct, the bulk of the underperformance will spill over into Labor's direction. The other thing to watch is the small (anything under 15 seats) parties, which includes the Sefardi religious Shas and the Russian conservative Yisrael Beyteinu. They may be tracking all wrong in the media polling. I will eat my hat if Benjamin Netanyahu does better than expected.

If the last round of polls are correct, and even if they are not, it looks like Olmert will have a hard time putting together anything other than a narrow government for more unilateral withdrawing. A Kadima-Labor-Meretz government will not have the broad numbers to make any further unilateral withdrawals doable. A government of 61-63 seats (with the possible unspoken support of a further 7-8 Arab MKs) does not make for a strong government that can stand up to the settler movement in the West Bank. Expect this election to end in a whimper, not a bang. Unlike the voting in Palestine in January, in Israel on Tuesday there will be no great sea-change, no seismic shifts. Once again, the Israeli electorate will indicate that it is split nearly down the middle on the great foreign policy issue of Palestine.