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.

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