Israeli Election Is over – Even the Shouting

Israel’s Labor Party, whose walkout from Ariel Sharon’s national unity government on October 31 forced the early election taking place in eight days time, has fallen victim to its own stratagem. The historic party, at the head of which David Ben Gurion founded the state of Israel in 1948, is dying on its feet, a process speeded by its wet firecracker election campaign for the 16th Knesset election.
For the sake of that campaign – and in the hope of recovering its lead-position as ruling party – Labor dumped its incumbent leader, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, defense minister for 20 months in the Sharon government, picking instead a “fresh face”, Haifa mayor and former general Amram Mitzna, With barely a month left for electioneering, Mitzna committed every tactical error in the book, dividing his own party and grinding its 25 seat-lead in Israel’s 120-man Knesset down to Likud’s 15th Knesset level of 19, according to the latest opinion polls. A month ago, Likud soared over 40, but plummeted heavily to below 30 two weeks ago, under the weight of the corruption scandals filling the airwaves.
Likud is fast recovering lost ground, reaching 33 at the last sampling, while Labor has sunk to 19. The crosscut of Israelis last canvassed are bent on punishing Labor for the sin of breaking up the national unity government in a period of emergency and for its choice of leader.
Mitzna has tried appealing to left, right and center at the same time: in between attacking Likud, he promised to build a security wall to separate Israel from the West Bank, restart peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat and uproot the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. He then proceeded to pronounce Arafat irrelevant and promised to beat terrorists to a pulp. Calling Sharon the godfather who ruled with his family may have been his most damaging misstep.
Finally, last Thursday, January 16, in an attempt to save the day, he forced his reluctant party colleagues to back him up in announcing that Labor would not join any post-election Sharon government. This divided the Labor leadership against him, a split that is likely to lead to desertions when portfolios are up for handing out after election-day.
He also misjudged the majority trend: Most Israelis want national unity rule at a time of great peril from terrorists and Iraq, despite the Sharon government’s dim economic performance: The economy has shrunk in the last two years. Unemployment and poverty figures have soared to 11 percent, biting hard into the once safe middle class.
Likud partisans who turned their backs on the party at its nadir ten days ago did not head for Labor. Indeed some of the mud thrown at Sharon and his party stuck to Labor itself.
In a spirit of a plague on both their houses, opinion turned initially to right-wing and religious parties and, most strikingly, swelled the ranks of a fairly new and amorphous grouping calling itself Shinui (Change), headed by the opinionated “in your face” Tommy Lapid, a 71-yeard old journalist who first gained national exposure by outperforming the rowdiest TV panelists on regular programs. His campaign is dominated by the exploitation of many non-religious Israelis’ resentment of state handouts to the ultra-religious community and the exemption from national service enjoyed by yeshiva seminarists. These privileges were historically extracted from Labor and Likud governments by ultra-religious parties with enough electoral clout to swing government coalitions between the two.
Shinui looks very much like usurping that role in the coming election.
Its following, like the rest of Lapid’s platform, represents a very mixed bag – refugees from the ageing left-wing Meretz, disenchanted Likudniks, disgusted Laborites. Lapid claims to speak for the Israeli middle class. His enemies call him “fascist, racist and rich.” His views on the Palestinian question are certainly closer to Likud than Meretz. Other members of his list barely get a word in edgeways. Coming up strongly in January 2003, Shinui is likely to go the way of previous ill-defined protest factions, who survived one or at most two elections before melting away.
But for now, Lapid’s faction is now panting hard behind Labor, threatening to run off with the second spot and more than willing to join a government led by Sharon.
As Likud deserters flock back to the fold, Sharon appears to rise effortlessly above the general despair. The only threat to his party’s landslide on January 28 is over-confidence; partisans may not bother to turn out. So sure is he, that Sunday, January 19, he reiterated his most unpopular mantra: support for a Palestinian state after terrorism is renounced – albeit demilitarized and with Israel in control of its frontiers and airspace.
Mitzna, intent on quelling the revolt in Labor ranks, came forward Sunday, January 19, with the offer of a parliamentary safety net for the Sharon’s post-election administration. He also invited the prime minister to a televised confrontation. The contemptuous response from Sharon’s campaign managers was: Let Mitzna have his confrontation with Tommy Lapid.
The 74-year old Likud leader has won a short respite from political pain. However, the day after the election, at the helm of a large camp, he will certainly be dogged by defections, squabbles, revolts held in check in the run-up to the election, particularly if he persists in holding to the middle of the road in his policies. When he begins to hand out portfolios, the strife will escalate, reflecting the rivalry building up in his camp for the role of successor to the leader.

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