Because of a corruption scandal which prime minister Ehud Olmert can scarcely survive, Israel this year faces its 21st general election in 60 years – most likely in November or December, 2008.
The frequency of the polls – for a government to serve a complete four-year term is a rarity – signifies the turbulent nature of Israeli politics. The incumbent government coalition has served half of its allotted term. All of Israel’s parties are plunged into contests for electoral candidacies – starting with the post of prime minister.
In Israel’s proportional election system, no party has ever ruled alone without coalition partners. The incumbent administration consists of Kadima, Labor – both left of center – and the ultra-religious Shas, mustering 64 of the 120 Knesset seats.
The four current front-runners for prime minister are:
Tzipi Livni, 50, foreign minister and acting prime minister, member of the prime minister’s Kadima, which was created by his predecessor Ariel Sharon in 2006 when he and his following quit the right-of-center Likud.
Livni is the second woman to run for the top post after Golda Meir, who headed the Israeli government for five years from 1969 to 1974.
Ehud Barak, 66, defense minister, chairman of the Labor party and a former prime minister from 1999 to 2000. In the 1990s, he served as chief of staff for five years.
Binyamin Netanyahu, 59, Likud leader and head of the opposition. He consistently rates highest of the four in opinion polls. He served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999 and as finance minister in the Sharon government.
Shaul Mofaz, 60, is the second Kadima candidate. Transport minister today, he has served as defense minister and was chief of staff when the Palestinian uprising flared in 2000.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political analysts note that whoever takes Kadima’s helm after Olmert’s exit will have to fight to hold the party together as a unified, functioning grouping. This is a new party which has never stood the numerical test of primaries or functioning institutions. For all its strategists can tell, the 62,000 registered members may have melted away in the heat of the police investigations against its leaders. Olmert is not the only one in this category.
Two candidates battle over a disintegrating party
As long as Olmert goes, Barak is anxious for Kadima to stand together and for the government to serve full term until 2010. He is backing Livni for prime minister as a unifying figure.
He himself is a non-member of the Knesset and therefore barred from the premiership. He fears a general election will grind his party down from its current 19 members.
The Labor leader, moreover, lives in hope that if the coalition alliance survives another two years in office, he will have time to achieve a merger between his Labor and Kadima and so form a strong centrist bloc to beat Netanyahu’s Likud.
So far, Kadima members have not been drawn.
Being on his last legs politically has not stopped Ehud Olmert from pulling wires behind the scenes. This week, in a surprise move, he swung his support to his once bitterest rival, Mofaz, for the premiership – anything to shut the door against Livni.
The prime minister still has enough party loyalists to swing a primary behind the transport minister as candidate for prime minister. From that point, Mofaz is uncommitted enough ideologically to forge an alliance with either Labor or Likud.
However, Israeli voters are capable of confounding all these calculations. Disgusted with the conduct of their prime minister, they may desert his party en masse.
In an election now, Kadima would be hammered from 20 percent of the vote won under his leadership in 2006, to 8-10 percent at best.
If Kadima wants to save itself, its powerhouses will have to decide which one is the more attractive as a vote-getter, Livni or Mofaz.
Kadima strategist, Tzahi Henegbi, chair of the Knesset foreign and defense committee, plans to summon the contenders for an accord on an election date. But Olmert is capable of a ploy to outrun their “putsch” against him and buy more months in office. He can achieve this by tendering his resignation to the president and winning appointment as head of a caretaker government until a general election.
Israel heads for an uncertain few months in another respect: The campaign may well coincide with a war. This has happened twice out of the 20 election campaigns held until now. In 1973, immediately after the Yom Kippur War of October, the regular and reserve armies were deployed on the front lines. Thirty years later, in 2003, Israelis went to the polls when Palestinian suicide bombings were at their peak.
The chances of a war situation evolving during election campaigning and primaries in June, July, August or September cannot be discounted, whether on the fronts with Iran, Syria, Hizballah or Hamas. The management of this conflict and its outcome will influence the prospects of the four prime ministerial candidates and the outcome of Israel’s 21st Knesset election.