A Fractured Government Loses Its Strategic Bearings

With the Gaza missile offensive burning a hole on his desk, Israel's caretaker prime minister, Ehud Olmert nonetheless avoided convening the policy-security cabinet. He knew that most of its nine members would vote against renewing the farcical ceasefire with Hamas (230 missiles fired in the past month, including 33 extra-powerful Grad Katyusha rockets) which runs out on Dec. 19. They would overrule him and opt for a comprehensive military operation in Gaza.

Olmert therefore summoned two senior cabinet members, defense minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Livni, leaders respectively of the Labor and Kadima parties, for a quick decision to extend the ceasefire, away from the routine wrangling of a large forum. But with a national election two months away, the two rivals were soon at each other's throats and nothing was decided. The decision between a truce extension or a military operation was left hanging.

A similar impasse rules government decision-making for the economy. The treasury says it has prepared emergency plans to offset the impact of the world economic crisis on Israel. Wednesday, Dec. 10, the central bank reported Israel's growth rate had dropped to zero. Distressed firms are firing workers at the rate of 15,000 per month, with another 70,000 jobless predicted for 2009. Savers and pensioners lost 30 percent of their assets in three months. But the Knesset is too divided to approve any emergency plans and the government has proved incapable of even getting the 2009 state budget passed.


Livni drops the ball


Israel faces its fifth national election in less than seven years, mainly because its mainstream parties have been unable to produce robust leaders. Olmert was forced to step down two months ago under a cloud of corruption probes. Kadima voted to replace him as party leader by the foreign minister. It was her failure to form an alternative coalition government in October which catapulted the country into its current crisis.

She lost her fateful bid by trying to play hard ball with potential coalition partners in the belief that if she stood up to the budgetary demands of the ultra-religious Shas party, she would win national plaudits and an assured election win in February.

The foreign minister lost the ball. Because she fumbled, Olmert was left to govern as caretaker for another three months until elections. Facing forced retirement and probable disgrace, he set about sabotaging his would-be successor's leadership of their party and her chances of succeeding him in the prime minister's office, aided willingly by two rival party leaders Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu and the defense minister.

The result is a freeze on decision-making – not only on Gaza and the economy, but on such urgent existential business as Iran's nuclear weaponization, Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinians.


Can Netanyahu pick it up and run?


Accompanying Kadima's disastrous decline in the polls under her leadership, Netanyahu's Likud which held its primary for candidates this week has soared as the party most likely to lead the next government. It has become a catchall for dissenters from other parties and non-partisan hopefuls.

Netanyahu, who has a good chance of winning a second term as prime minister in February, had hoped the primary would produce a slate for the next Knesset of likeminded colleagues who would follow his lead as a resilient politician who tends to go with the flow in Washington. But the top ten turned out to be hawks rather than doves, while the moderates he invited to the ranks were dropped to the bottom by the party majority of the rank and file – an expression perhaps of a wider popular malaise with a government cut adrift for years by its own passivity and incompetence.

If elected, Netanyahu will have his work cut out to navigate a practicable policy course on the big war and peace issues ducked by the incumbent administration, while keeping his right-leaning party under control, especially on the issue of dialogue with Arab leaders. However, one of the most hawkish new members, Benny Begin, is the son of the first Likud leader, Menahem Begin, who became prime minister in 1977 and negotiated Israel's first treaty with an Arab state, Egypt.

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