Skids under Sharon and Mofaz

Municipal elections are normally of less than compelling international interest. However, the local poll that took place in Israel on Tuesday, October 28, turned out to be a seminal political occurrence on two scores. In the first, they were a platform for the ongoing campaign to unseat prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz, which has been waged in recent months by local opposition politicians with solid backing from some European quarters.

The campaign did not get very far. However, this week, it was fueled from a completely unexpected source: Israel’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen Mosha Yaalon, suddenly rose up and fired a broadside against the Sharon government’s Palestinian policies which he called disastrous to a select group of invited journalists.

Horrified officials in Jerusalem spoke of the damaging effect this outburst by the top Israeli soldier would have on the soldiers under his command who fight Palestinian terrorists day by day, on the country’s far-from-firm international standing and Sharon’s delicate relations with the Bush administration. Yet some of Sharon’s own Likud ministers, including foreign minister Silvan Shalom, hurried to endorse the general’s views against the government in which they serve. They only disparaged his manner of seeking to publish them, through the media instead of the proper forums.

Clearly, Sharon’s rivals scented weakness and were sharpening their claws.

On the very day of the outcry, six police investigators called at the prime minister’s residence and spent six hours questioning him on his involvement with his two sons in suspected illegal fundraising for his 1999 primaries campaign and allegations of improperly profiting from his sons’ business dealings over a Greek island.

Most legal experts believe the police investigation will lead nowhere and end up by closing the Sharon dossier. In the meantime, Sharon’s reputation and political standing are suffering profound injury.

In these circumstances, even municipal elections became the arena for a contest inside his party over which contender wouldl be first to knock the old man out and take his place.

Likud slipped, Labor and Shinui crashed

Whenever the media pundits and political mavens are certain that, this time, the Likud will be tossed out on its ear, they are confounded by the Israeli voter’s detestation of the alternatives – whether the peace-at-any-price left-wingers of Labor, the extreme right-wing factions, the ultra-religious parties, or the zigzaggers. Tuesday, October 28, the ruling Likud had its wings clipped but did not crash.

Hail to the victors: An emergent Israeli middle-of-the-road class of small entrepreneurs, self-employed professionals and members of the high-tech fraternity in their thirties and forties who seem to be surviving the bad times overtaking Israel with their own agenda. They want firstly to make a buck and live nicely – but are not prepared to let the Palestinians get away with anything. This rising class is made up of two seemingly different elements: third- or fourth-generation Sephardim born in Israel and Russian-born Israelis who have settled in comfortably and no longer regard themselves as new immigrants. Both are to be found in the crowded urban sprawl of central Israel.

Wholly cynical about politicians as a species, it is they who boosted independent mayoral candidates at the expense of established party men. Because of them, the ruling Likud did not pay the full price predicted for the Sharon government’s inability to end the Palestinian terror campaign or its ruthless economic program. Savvy Likud politicians like finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his deputy, Meir Sheetrit and trade minister Ehud Olmert identified this new as yet amorphous class of voter as a useful instrument for kick-starting their own post-Sharon leadership runs. In the short term, they served a useful purpose in filling the ranks of former Likud loyalists who defected to Shinui or left the country after being worn down by economic hardship and the security pressures.

While these voters were willing to divide their favors between independents and Likud, they shunned Shimon Peres’s pro-peace Labor, which had cherished hopes of mining the dragging war and the scandals even for slim gains to offset its devastating decline in the national elections. Labor’s ex-leader Amram Mitzna tried hurling epithets at the Likud leader (“Sharon is not a legitimate prime minister and most of the public is against him.”), Labor’s ally, trade union leader Yehoshua Peretz, tried to hijack the election with a series of crippling strikes.

But Labor found no straws to clutch. It looks as though this veteran party is doomed to continue its slide until it produces a young, charismatic leader capable of steering firmly towards the political center and attracting the next, highly pragmatic generation of voters.

Equally unavailing was the battle cry of “Anyone but Likud” plastered on billboards by the ultra-religious opposition Shas, which was tapped with Shinui (Change) which swept into government at its first national election earlier this year, as the certain victors. Shas hoped to lure away from Likud the poor, whose number has tripled in thirteen years, while Shinui hoped to strike roots as a permanent feature of the national political fabric.

Young middle class swings towards independents

In the event, the electorate retained 13 incumbent mayors who did a good job, confronted 39 hopefuls with runoffs and went for can-do independent candidates who promised to take care of pressing local problems This was the pattern in working class Bat Yam, where solo runner Shlomo Lehiani won the mayoral election, in Ramat Gan where incumbent Zvi Bar remained aloof from parties and kept his seat and in Beersheba, where Yaakov Turner kept his job.

Two issues that cut through the general voter apathy were the environment and the increasing financial distress in outlying districts – most pronounced in the sparsely populated south of the country, where Likud lost most heavily.

While bruised by the recession, the towns of central Israel are home to the new entrepreneurial talent that is less sentimental about the social inequities resulting from the double-fisted economic policies of finance minister Netanyahu.

The election results indicate Israelis are willing to give his call for hard work a chance –

a theme different from a clarion call by Labor and union leaders for a general strike that would paralyze an entire country over the dismissal of 1,000 government workers from a bloated civil service.

Despite the stubbornly high unemployment figure of more than 10 percent, and the individual’s tough daily grind, the Israeli economy and the shekel have begun to rebound.

Shinui has become one of its first victims. Just nine months ago, right after the parliamentary poll, Shinui claimed pride of place as the new center party and lodestone for the new and old Israeli middle class. But, instead of working for a broader power base, its leaders Tommy Lapid and Avraham Poraz have exploited their first terms as cabinet ministers to focus on bashing religious Jews, a campaign that held little appeal for the majority of the new middle class outside of Tel Aviv.

Shinui also began gravitating toward the left in a bid to attract Meretz supporters. Justice minister Lapid then made a crucial “bucks for the boys” mistake by disbursing tens of millions of shekels to Shinui supporters, whom he said represented the best in Israeli culture. All Lapid did was to show the Shinui constituency that the newly voted in party did not represent change but more of the same. Shinui paid paid the price at its first municipal election. Six of its seven mayoral candidates failed to get in. In its Tel Aviv bastion, Shinui was trounced by the largest single council faction, a truly new party founded by and for senior citizens, and Meretz.

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