What a difference a month makes. Not so long ago we in Israel were digesting the results of the decision of the American people to choose the nice guy over the capable one, and now we are at a cusp of our own elections, the interesting part of which has ended with the submission of party lists. While the Israeli Right presented a unified front to the voters, integrating for the first time the electoral power of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the Left (or “the Center”, which is how the Israeli parties formerly known as Left wing prefer to be called nowadays) has splintered, divided and defected to the very end, amusing and disgusting potential voters with dazzling displays of egotism.
Unity of purpose has a powerful impact on the Israeli Right-wingers. Gone are the ideological splinter parties – today the selection of options on the Right is logical and simple. The tandem team of Netanyahu and Lieberman for all those who simply want Netanyahu to remain in power; the “Jewish Home” party of Naftali Bennett for those who vote Right on values, and the “Might for Israel” party of Kahane flavor for those who REALLY dislike Arabs and African infiltrators (contrary to the Liberal doom-and-gloom Jeffrey Goldberg-style pronouncements, those “extremists” aren’t gaining ground and are struggling to pass the electoral minimum barrier). The power of the Right is so manifest that nobody takes seriously any threats from Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, or the Chairwoman of the new “The Movement” party of Tzipi Livni (formerly of “Kadima”) that they are going to unseat Netanyahu and change the course of the country.
While the personal struggles, defections and self-aggrandizement of the self-appointed “leaders” of the Israeli Left-Center made the run-up to the elections a very colorful show indeed, the personal crises are only a symptom of the ideological debacle. There are only two party lists who state as their highest priority the renewal of the “peace process” at any cost – the Livni list and the far-left Meretz. In the most recent survey they polled 13 mandates out of 120 combined, and Meretz activists have expressed fear that the defection of their supporters to Livni could leave them out of the next Knesset altogether. The Labor party, which appears set to return to its traditional strength of less than 20 mandates, has not renounced “peace”, yet Yachimovich does everything in her power to convince everyone who is not pleased with the economic policies of Netanyahu to give her a chance, and that means treading softly on Leftist hot-button issues like settlements and Jerusalem. Her determination not to be distracted from her chosen path (and not to share power within the party) brought about the high-profile defection of former Labor Chairman, Godfather of the “Iron Dome” Amir Peretz, who evidently hoped to take his newfound popularity to Tzipi Livni but has so far failed to make a dent.
It’s not like Netanyahu’s position is unassailable. Whatever the results will be after the vote on January 22nd, the Israeli government’s “to-do” list will make very depressing reading. Having betrayed his economic principles out of fear of street protests last year, Netanyahu has raised public spending, increased the direct tax rate and will now be presented with a bill – 2012 will end with a three-billion-NIS-wide budget hole and reduced estimates for tax receipts. The budget deficit will be twice as large as was estimated and the prognosis for 2013 is not good either. The new government will be forced to cut spending by as much as 15 billion shekels and to raise taxes again if the main export markets of the Jewish state – the European Union and the United States – do not recover at a much faster pace than in 2012.
On the other hand, who can criticize Netanyahu for his newfound love for direct taxation, wasteful spending and his deals with powerful unions? Definitely not Shelly Yachimovich, who is the boon companion of Histadrut union boss Ofer Eini and whose economic platform simply amounts to more taxes and more spending? Avigdor Lieberman was a committed economic liberal who wasn’t afraid to criticize the tent protesters – but now Lieberman is Netanyahu’s number two. The rest of the competition are simply not considered by the Israeli public as serious contenders in the economic arena.
If Netanyahu’s economic reputation is about to take a hit, his handling of the recent operation in Gaza has hurt him in the polls already. Regardless of the duplicitous American position, which on the one hand proclaimed Israel’s right to self-defense while on the other hand pushed Jerusalem to agree to the Egyptian terms of the cease-fire, Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak never intended to re-occupy Gaza and depose the Hamas regime. When it is not firing rockets at Israeli civilians or burrowing under the security fence to kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border, Hamas serves as a trump card for Israeli efforts to prevent any serious attempt to award the PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas with any status he shouldn’t have. No true statehood is possible while Abbas doesn’t control Gaza, no meaningful negotiations on borders and security, and of course no possible reconciliation between the Arabs and the Jews. Nothing emphasized this more than the visit to Gaza by the Hamas Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, who is considered “pragmatic” by certain Europeans and American liberals. Every statement made by Meshaal was propaganda gold for Israel.
Nevertheless, the Israeli public and the reservists who were called up to serve, essentially, as props for negotiations between Israel, Egypt, Hamas and Hillary Clinton, were not amused by the abrupt ending of military operations. Just like four years ago, the public wanted to see Hamas destroyed. The celebrations of the terrorists in Gaza stuck in Israelis’ craw, especially since this time, the IDF didn’t manage to kill any significant number of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives, limiting itself to attacks on gang leaders and rocket crews. The “victory” of Hamas, coupled with the hollow triumph of Abbas in the UN, promises the renewed prospect of violence in Judea and Samaria. And it’s not like Netanyahu has nothing to do with the rise of Hamas – even before operation “Pillar of Defense”, his decisions to dismantle the land blockade of the Gaza Strip after the “Mavi Marmara” flotilla incident and to exchange Gilad Shalit for more than a thousand terrorists have bolstered Hamas’ image as a successful “resistance force” at Abbas’ and Fatah’s expense.
Four years ago, Netanyahu and Lieberman stood before cameras at the end of operation “Cast Lead”, attacked the Kadima government for its “indecision,” and promised to wipe out Hamas. Now, there isn’t any political force left to call them to account. For all their vows to abide by “Rabin’s legacy”, the Israeli Left has forsaken the muscular component of this legacy. Rabin was a great believer in peace from strength. Neither Labor nor Livni no Yair Lapid can credibly assert their intention to deliver peace with Palestinian moderates while destroying Hamas.
The only card left to play for Livni is the foreign one – she attempts to scare the public with prophecies of impending collapse of Israel’s relations with Europe and Washington. The problem with that argument of course, is that the reaction of the Israeli public to the wild denunciations from abroad of building plans in Jerusalem is increasingly cynical. Polls showed that a majority bought into Livni’s argument that the building announcements are politically motivated – and supported them nevertheless. Livni’s insistence that Barack Obama is Israel’s friend and the blame for poor relations between the two countries must fall on Netanyahu is about to be sorely tested by the appointment of prominent Israel-basher Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. No Israeli government could accommodate Hagel’s ideas on appeasement of Iran and legitimization of Hamas, no friend of Israel can overlook his suggestion that support of the Jewish state is somehow incompatible with loyalty to America. Choosing Hagel will send a clear signal that Obama wishes to confront Netanyahu, not to cooperate with him. Those who, like Rahm Emanuel, believe that such a confrontational stance will cower Israelis into submission and change the electoral map will wake up on January 23rd with a well-deserved headache.