Friday, February 13, 2009

US & EU Prefer National Unity

In a young country with a consistent history of political shockers, Israel goes into the new week paralyzed by complete political deadlock. The drama of Israel's democracy -- its proud self-image as the "one true democracy in the Middle East" contrasted by its corrupt and venal reality -- makes for a compelling story. In the last 13 years the country has voted five times -- first, in 1996 came the short-lived government of Binyamin Netanyahu, whose premiership ended in a cloud of scandal. Then in 1999 came Ehud Barak, whose equally short-lived premiership ended in a thorough trouncing by Ariel Sharon in 2003. Sharon stroked out in early 2006, to be replaced by Ehud Olmert, who squeaked through an election later that year. Olmert resigned under a cloud of illegality in 2008, and elections occurred this past Tuesday. It is like a perpetual revolving door -- one government swept away by another -- riven by religious-secular demands, economic disparity, racial prejudices, and rabidly divergent approaches to matters of national security.

The greatest shock to Israel's body politic was the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a Jewish assassin. Like all great but troubled democracies (India, the US), Israel has had to deal with the ultimate political catastrophe. That it has survived asassination of its head of state with its political institutions relatively intact is testimony to a certain vitality and health, but one should note that all is not perfect. The Economist rates Israel at 38 in its Democracy Index, a "flawed democracy." (Also "flawed" is India at 35; the US is at 18.) The proliferation of political parties and the complete absence of political consensus (the 2 leading parties in this past election garnered 22% each -- the 2 "big" parties together still do not represent even half of the electorate) means that this "flawed democracy" is once again rudderless.

The reason I say "once again" is because in 2009, Israeli political history is ironically repeating itself. In 1984, the two leading parties garnered over 65% of the electorate, but were split almost evenly (one party, Labor, had a 44-41 seat advantage over Likud). Then-Labor leader Shimon Peres was tapped by President Chaim Herzog to form a government, but Peres failed to create a government without Likud. In failure, Peres accepted a national unity government with his political rival Yitzhak Shamir of Likud, and agreed not only to appoint Shamir his Foreign Minister, but to resign the premiership in two years' time and rotate positions with Shamir.

Now in 2009 -- irony of ironies -- Peres sits in the President's House, and in his hands is the same decision that faced his compatriot Herzog 25 years ago. The experience of "rotation" was a bitter pill for Peres to swallow, and it is hard to imagine he wishes such a thing on either Tzipi Livni or Netanyahu. But there are a confluence of political signals coming out of the EU, the United States, and Jerusalem, which argue for Peres pushing hard for such an accommodation.

While the United States takes no official position on the internal deliberations of Israeli democracy, and the State Department vows to work with whatever government emerges, there can be no doubt that an Israeli government headed by Netanyahu and composed of right-wing "nationalist" parties is thought of by American "peace processors" as an awful prospect. EU Foreign Minister Javier Solana was not as circumspect as the Obama administration, and undiplomatically stated his clear preference for a national unity government in Israel. Netanyahu has acknowledged that he was approached by contacts in the American administration; Livni has denied any contact. But it is certainly likely that the State Department has conveyed to both politicians its desire to see a Likud-Kadima dominated government.

Netanyahu himself has indicated he would like to try for such a government. If he fails to get a national unity government with Livni, only Netanyahu has a plausible Plan B, a hard right-nationalist government. Livni has no Plan B to turn to.

But who would lead a national unity government? Here is where rotation might be helpful.

Here is my rotation scenario: Peres meets with all the parties. He notes that a majority of small right-wing and religious parties endorse Netanyahu's Plan B. Peres counsels for national unity, with Labor and possibly Shas. He then informs Livni and Bibi that, for the sake of the country, they should try to work it out. The two then explore the rotation option, with Livni getting first crack at the job of PM.

In this scenario, the problem with rotation in 2009 is the discrepancy between the 65% of shared electoral power between Labor and Likud in 1984, and the current 44% shared electoral power of Kadima and Likud. In 1984, the two partners could form a government all on their own; in 2009, they still need lots of assistance. And there are very few palatable options, other than a humiliated Labor party, to turn to. But in the end, Labor will play along. Labor by itself will hardly grant a national unity government legitimacy, so at some point one of the religious parties (Shas? more likely Torah Judaism) will have to be induced to join.

Will it happen? I don't know. But this is a deliciously ironic moment for those of us who have watched the political tragedy of Shimon Peres over the years. Peres, the frustrated former half-Prime Minister of the 1980s, and the tragic brief successor to Rabin in the 1990s, has one last fateful part to play in the ongoing drama of Israeli democracy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israel: Election Results

The Israeli exit poll results are in, and all 3 national TV channels are in agreement -- Kadima and current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have garnered a 2-seat lead over Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party, 30-28 (or 29-27). If these predictions hold up (and they may yet prove unreliable), according to Israeli political norms Livni will be tapped to attempt to form a new coalition government of at least 61 parliamentary seats. This is not a sure thing, though, for according to Israeli law the Israeli President Shimon Peres (Kadima) must consult with all the parties to determine who will have the most support in forming a government. Only then, after a week of consultations, will the President designate a politician to form a government. The right-national parties have apparently agreed amongst themselves to uniformly recommend Netanyahu to Peres. It is nevertheless hard to imagine Peres turning away from Livni. More on that later.

This is not the only surprise. Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party seriously underperformed the pre-election polls. Instead of amassing 18 seats in the upcoming 18th Kenesset, Yisrael Beitenu managed only 14 or 15 seats. Lieberman may not find himself in the future government. Lieberman wants to see a right-wing government, and might indeed try to create with Netanyahu a blocking action to foil Livni from forming a center-right government. Netanyahu almost made the ultimate comeback -- from the irrelevancy of 12 seats in the 17th Kenesset to 27 or 28 in the new Kenesset. He just couldn't cross the finish line. But Lieberman is willing to listen to all offers.

The third surprise -- not really a surprise -- is the collapse of historic Labor and its leader, current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Earlier I speculated that for Barak, the Gaza War was a Hail Mary pass for electoral relevancy. The strategy failed. Labor and Barak are now facing the dilemma of Netanyahu and Likud after the 2006 elections -- a humiliating 4th-place finish, the size of an irrelevant minor boutique party comprising 13 seats.

Livni had an opportunity late last year to form a government out of the more favorable configuration of the 17th Kenesset without going to national elections. She refused to accede to demands of the Shas party on social spending and on national security positions, and instead chose to go to the polls. Neither Kadima nor Shas will easily forget that episode. It was a gutsy, some say tempestuous, roll of the dice, and one could argue that Livni did not improve her situation by going to the nation. Livni now awaits Peres's decision, facing the option of forming a weak center-right government (Kadima-Likud-Labor), or a stronger right-right government (Kadima-Labor-Yisrael Beitenu-National Union), or no government at all.

On the BBC I just heard Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erakat speculating on the possibility of a rotation-government, whereby Livni becomes Prime Minister for 2 years, and then Netanyahu takes over. As strange as this seems, it is reminiscent of the hamstrung rotation government of 1984-88 between then Labor leader Shimon Peres and Likud's Yitzhak Shamir. Peres started first as PM, with Shamir as Foreign Minister; then in late 1986 they switched roles. Peres tried to advance peace feelers, which Shamir struggled to undo. It is possible we might see such an outcome.

What is clear is that Israel has taken a hard right turn. Kadima leads the electoral race, but Likud leads the largest electoral bloc of right-nationalists. All the self-defined rightist, nationalist (and religious) parties could constitute a blocking action of at least 62 seats. Can any of them be peeled away from this right-national bloc through promises of cabinet slots, baksheesh, or compromised political stances? That is Livni's dilemma.

At the State Department, fingers must be crossed in the hope that Livni will be the new Israeli PM.

A murky outcome, indeed. Livni may have narrowly won the evening, and yet lost the opportunity to govern.

Update, 10:30 pm (4:30 am Israel time): with the official vote count now 100% complete, it appears that the Kadima lead has been trimmed to one seat, 28 to 27 for Likud. In a further blow to the Israeli left, Meretz has been reduced to a 3 seat presence in the upcoming Kenesset.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Last Israeli Polling

An apathetic Israeli electorate is finally getting serious about the upcoming Tuesday Israeli election, and some electoral shifts are apparently afoot. The post-Gaza War bump indicated by polls for Labor and its leader Ehud Barak seems to be dissolving in this final weekend. Why this is happening is not entirely clear. To be sure, Barak has not run an attractive political campaign. And the continued drizzle of missiles out of Gaza has done nothing to burnish Barak's proposed image as the military strategist who found a once-and-for-all solution to the missile crisis.

The beneficiary of this last-minute dissolve of Labor is apparently Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party, now running a close second behind Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu. It really matters not the slightest who wins -- Livni or Netanyahu -- the upshot will be a coalition government of far righter political outlook than the current one. It is hard to imagine any conceivable coalition configuration that does not include the thuggish Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party in its midst, but it could happen. Lieberman, who faces an ongoing corruption investigation (a bribe scandal involving the now defunct Palestinian casino in Jericho) which will not be resolved before Tuesday, might ultimately prove to be an unacceptable coalition partner, even as his rightist pronouncements garner a half million votes. Still, a Likud/Kadima-Labor-Shas coalition (75 projected seats) that foregoes Lieberman (as Yoel Marcus wishes in Friday's Haaretz) will nevertheless have a more right-wing slant, if only because of the newfound strength of Likud. No matter what, Likud and Kadima together will make up the bulk of the next government. If Labor joins, expect Barak to continue as Defense Minister. If the religious Shas party is in the next government, there is virtually no chance that Lieberman (who is rabidly secular) will sit at a cabinet table with Shas leader Eli Yishai. Livni, the well-regarded (in some circles, but not all) current Israeli Foreign Minister, might more palatably represent such a right-center government to the world community than truculent Bibi, but it will still be a government less prone to engage in enthusiastic peace processing with the broken Palestinian political leadership, and a government even more keen on insisting on "security."