- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

No one knows what to make of Israeli politics right now. In a parliamentary system where elections can be called at almost any time, ordinary Israelis neither trust nor support their elected leadership — yet there isn’t much of a public clamor for new elections.

This odd stability could shatter in the coming weeks, depending on the results of the commission looking into the conduct of last summer’s war. But if — as it is now whispered by insiders — the panel does not whack Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, it could be next year before any real changes occur.

It’s not quite political fatigue that has gripped Israelis. Apathy is certainly present, but so is indecision — particularly on the part of Mr. Olmert. He still has not recovered from his inability to direct a decisive military campaign against Hezbollah last summer. And now, partly because of corruption allegations swirling around him, he has not been setting the political agenda.

Then again, no one else has, either.

This leadership vacuum does not owe to a lack of big issues. Iran poses a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state. Hezbollah and even Hamas continue to stockpile weapons successfully toward their ultimate goal of eliminating the “Zionist enemy.” Yet little of substance is being done — or even planned — to confront these obvious threats.

Key to understanding the current Israeli stasis is this paradox: Mr. Olmert is as unpopular as any prime minister in a generation, yet he presides over a coalition as stable as any in recent memory.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has 120 seats. Normally, it takes a coalition of 61 or bigger to control the government. Mr. Olmert’s coalition holds well over 70 seats. By Israeli standards, that’s huge. And it’s a testament to Mr. Olmert’s masterful political skills.

Consider Mr. Olmert’s recent move to bring into his coalition Avigdor Lieberman, who was considered the furthest right of any leading Israeli politician. Mr. Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party has 11 seats, padding Mr. Olmert’s majority — and giving him cushion against defections.

No one had even fathomed such a move, yet even Mr. Olmert’s detractors concede that it was genius. Especially impressive is that Mr. Olmert understood the benefits of a staunch right-winger joining the center-left coalition. Even though Mr. Lieberman is to the right of Likud leader and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he has as much power now as he might under any center-right government that could topple the current one.

Because the prime minister is no longer elected directly by voters, any new elections would result in large numbers of Knesset members being ousted. Labor and Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party would suffer significant losses, and plenty of other coalition members could meet the same fate. Luckily for Mr. Olmert, politicians generally prefer not to vote themselves out of power.

Other than the likely imminent conclusion of the Winograd Commission, which is investigating the conduct of the war with Hezbollah, the only other wild card in the near term is the Labor Party primary, scheduled for May.

The Labor head, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, likely will lose, and his replacement could be the once-believed-dead former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The former general is mounting a serious campaign as a security hawk (by Labor’s standards), highlighting his extensive military experience.

Casting a pall over everything is the Gaza pullout. Religious Zionists and settlers, who have long been the beating heart of the right, are noticeably quieter and seem almost defeated. They mounted a massive opposition to the disengagement, but still lost. Not that most proponents of the pullout feel a sense of victory anymore, though. Graphic images of Jewish soldiers removing Jews from their homes and synagogues being burned to the ground scarred many Israelis. And in the end result, security worsened — meaning a high price was paid for no gain at all.

Disenchantment resulting from the aftermath of Gaza withdrawal has sapped support for the scheduled sequel, “convergence.” Mr. Olmert was elected, in fact, primarily on the platform of “convergence,” which would have involved uprooting tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank. But now the glue that united Kadima is gone.

Kadima might be a party without a core vision, but it also lacks an adversary capable of ousting it — at least for now. The only apparent challenger is Mr. Netanyahu, who has no positive message to inspire public support. When forced to answer by pollsters, roughly half of Israelis say they’d vote for Mr. Netanyahu. But as any pollster will attest, the level of support is meaningless without intensity — and there is little for him. Quips Mitchell Barak of Keevoon, a leading Israeli political consulting firm, “Bibi’s message is ‘vote for me or we are all going to die.’”

The old American saw trotted out every other October that a month is an eternity in politics could well hold true in Israel. But also by that measuring stick, Mr. Olmert might just be able to last many eternities. It’s anyone’s guess.

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.

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