Israel votes: The Mideast soap opera



Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, center
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, center

Now the courtship phase of the election has ended. In other words, last Thursday, Jan. 30, was the deadline for changing lists and candidates, and no more marriages between lists are allowed. This courtship phase has been more exciting than most. It started off with the Labor Party’s leader, Yitzhak Herzog, scion of one of Labor’s most distinguished lineages (his father was former President and General Chaim Herzog) joining with Tzipi Livni, whose father was a major leader in the pre-state Etzel (Irgun) and in the forerunner of the Likud, where her own political base was until 2005, joining together in a new party called the ‘Zionist Camp.’ Recent failed courtships included the Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett recruiting Eli Ohana, one of Israel’s premier (retired) soccer heroes, for his list, until Ohana dropped out in the resulting furor; and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last minute to induce independent center-right Likud refugee Moshe Kahlon to merge his now ‘Kulanu’ party with Likud, which Kahlon refused. Kahlon, for his part, despite a seemingly lackluster campaign, successfully offered almost-Chief of Staff Gen. (ret.) Yoav Galant as well as former Ambassador to the US Michael Oren realistic slots on his list. Meanwhile, an unlikely polygamous marriage between all the ‘Arab’ parties in the Knesset into one party was concluded, against heavy odds, thus creating one mid-sized ‘Arab’ party for the first time in Israeli history. A huge irony is that it was forced on them because a new law, midwifed by Avigdor Lieberman’s rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu Party, set a high threshold of 3.25 % of the vote to get into the Knesset, and was passed with the hope of sharply reducing Arab Knesset membership. Compounding the irony is that a major corruption investigation has engulfed Yisrael Beiteinu and it is distinctly possible that the party might not reach the threshold itself, thus hoisting itself on its own petard. For a variety of other attempted – and some successful – party mergers and acquisitions, see here.

But no satirist would dare invent the most recent scandal, which features Bibi Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, already dubbed ‘Bottlegate.” While most Israeli politicians’ spouses usually remain in the background in the background, Sara has consistently been in the news, usually as the object of claims of extravagance, abuse of the hired help, stinginess, or ‘forcing’ her husband to make political choices based on her (intense) likes and dislikes. Now, the Attorney General is about to launch a potential criminal investigation focused on, among other things, Sara’s reported practice of forcing the prime ministerial staff to remit to her the deposits for all the bottles used in her household, which are purchased with taxpayers’ money. It turns out that she had already repaid the equivalent of $1000 for this in the past. Moreover, opposition politicians have gleefully pointed out, the Netanyahus (state-paid) liquor bill comes to more than the wages for a million Israelis This may seem purely comical, let alone trivial, but at the moment it is not entirely inconceivable that Netanyahu could drop out of the race or be severely punished by voters. Israelis are suffering economically, a significant issue in the campaign, and Sara’s extravagance could resonate harshly for her husband. My own guess is that this will turn out to be a blip, but that is by no means certain.

Rather weightier matters are, of course, in play as well. Last week, a near-war with Hezbollah was averted, largely because the timing was convenient for none of the parties, though two Israeli soldiers were killed and a number wounded. The current tension stems from an attack on a jeep on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border with Israel on Jan. 18. Though Israel has not claimed responsibility, no one doubts that it launched the attack. Killed were six Hezbollah fighters, including Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Imad Mughniyeh, a major Hamas leader assassinated, again almost certainly by Israel, in 2008. Perhaps more important, also in the jeep and also killed was a top commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is the major supporter and supplier of both Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah could not let these go unavenged and therefore launched a missile at a (for some reason) unarmored Israeli vehicle near the border, killing the two Israeli soldiers. Simul¬taneously – and in a remarkable and rare exercise of good sense – Iran and Hezbollah used diplomatic contacts to convey to Israel that it had no interest in expanding the violence if Israel did not. Despite bellicose calls from a number of Israeli politicians, honor seems satisfied and the incident seems closed – at least for now. See a fuller discussion of these issues here. However, Netanyahu has been blamed by the Israeli Center and Left for initiating an attack that would guarantee retaliation, and by the same token reminded his rightwing constituency that he is not afraid to attack Israel’s enemies, which is what he is largely basing his campaign on.

And then there are the continuing repercussions from Boehnergate, on both sides of the ponds. I was among those who thought it a despicably clever ploy which would help Republicans, divide Democrats, and boost Bibi among his core rightwing (Israeli) constituency, which he is trying to keep away from the darling of the far right, Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett. Instead, at this point, it seems to have backfired, though its real results won’t be clear until Bibi comes to Washington and gives his congressional speech or – conceivably – doesn’t. The ploy has been criticized by a number of erstwhile allies – including the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman and former Ambassador Michael Oren – and seems to have resulted in Democratic hawks delaying bipartisan legislation to force Obama’s hand on Iran sanctions. Perhaps most important, opposition Israeli politicians seem to be gaining traction with the argument that that Bibi is irresponsibly endangering the vital relationship with the United States and incurring the anger of President Obama for the sake of partisan advantage in the upcoming elections. Even many rightwingers in Israel recognize that the US is a political and diplomatic lifeline and do not want it endangered, even though they might not like Obama himself.

As of this writing, there is still over six weeks until the elections and there’s little doubt that the show will go on. However, it is hard to argue that Bibi seems rather less invincible than many thought when he surprised the country with the announcement of new elections late last year. Recent poll numbers show Likud trailing 3-4 seats behind the ‘Zionist Camp,’ and the largest party will probably – though not necessarily – have the first crack at forming the new government coalition. However, as I argued in my last article, Bibi will likely retain an advantage in the post-election negotiations that actually set up the coalition. The right, combined with the religious parties, still looks more cohesive and better able to agree on a set of principles. The Left, though by no means out of the running, would likely have to reconcile ex-Likudniks like Kahlon and Livni not only with left-Zionist Meretz, but with a newly-united Arab bloc with around 12 seats. No Arab party has ever been part of a government coalition and it is by no means clear whether Israelis are yet ready for that to take place. Or, as has happened before, the ‘Zionist Camp’ may join with the hated Bibi and other parties in a ’unity’ government, which might have the votes to survive, but could probably do little else.

That is my report from the real-life soap opera. Despite my tone, it is indeed deadly serious – and lives and policies will hinge on the results.

Paul Scham is executive director of The Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.


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