Thursday, August 22, 2002
A really excellent opinion piece in Ha'aretz about the folly of the Mitzna boomlet. Which I suspect is already starting to fade.
Israel is still living this terrible paradox: its people are strong but its leadership is weak. I can count on one hand the Israeli political leaders I admire: Natan Sharansky, Beni Begin (who at this point isn't a political leader anymore), who else? I think Michael Melchior is a good guy, an important symbol, but he's got no influence at all. Sheetrit, Shalom, Meridor all seem like decent people, but not the sorts of people who could inspire one. I have considerable respect for Yossi Sarid of Meretz, even though I think he's wrong. For that matter, I had a lot of respect for Barak, even I think he drove the country straight off a cliff. But Ramon? Beilin? Yael Dayan? These people are supposed to be Labor's leaders; can anyone take these people seriously? And how much respect can one have for a Netanyahu or any of his old cronies, the Hanegbis and Libermans and the like.
Labor is now structurally a minority party. It has not adjusted; it hasn't figured out who it is. Mitzna, I've argued before, is a walking argument that Labor should become a Liberal party: pro-business, socially very liberal, and generally dovish but flexible - most important, a party not expected to embody the national consensus on anything but pushing the consensus in a particular direction, whether from within the government or without. That's a plausible future for the party. It's a future that, if the party is true to such a vision, and has any integrity (a real question) should put Shinui and Democratic Choice out of business, and could be a reliable junior partner to the majority party or, when that party stumbles, make a bid to form a government in coalition with a Social Democratic party to its left. Mitzna could help make that transition for Labor, but not if he runs as a "peace" candidate, as the Great White Hope who will make the situation disappear by virtue of being a good kibbutznik general, a guy from the right sort of background, "one of us" - the born to lead.
Israel's much bigger problem is that Likud has not yet grown up to become the majority party. Likud is, at its heart, a populist party, and populist parties have a hard time becoming majority parties. But Likud is - or will be, after the next election - the party of Israel's majority. Likud will probably run in an alignment with Yisrael B'Aliya (Sharansky's party) and with Gesher, and will take big bites out of Labor and Shas (and completely absorb the Center Party). And, unlike the elections of the 1990s, this big shift will be permanent. One of the things I heard on my visit to Israel, in a lecture by an Israeli professor of political science, was that Israeli voting patterns have historically been quite stable, and driven largely by demographics. Now, suddenly, there's a huge dislocation of voters who were sure in their political orientation, accompanied by a general shift to the right. I think it's pretty conservative to estimate that a Likud alignment gets 40 seats in the next Knesset (that's roughly 20 currently, plus 5 from Labor, 5 from Shas and 10 from Yisrael B'Aliyah, Gesher and Center together). 50 doesn't seem at all out of reach. A Labor alignment, meanwhile, could easily not break 20 seats. Likud is likely not only to win the next elections but establish itself as the predominant party in the country, the new establishment. But it has great difficulty placing itself in that position, psychologically, of being anything but the coalition of the outsiders, fighting the establishment.
Until the situation is resolved - not necessarily permanently, but into some kind of stable modus vivendi - Israel will effectively be not a two-party system but a one-party system. An opposition running on fantasy solutions to a difficult situation will be obliterated at the polls. To be a plausible opposition, Labor will either support Likud or will have to come up with coherent alternative policies on the security front, and it has shown no signs of doing the latter. To become a plausible partner for Likud means either becoming a "me, too" Likud-lite party or coming up with a plausible alternative identity, such as being a Liberal party. Or, Labor can join Meretz on the fringes, leaving the country to be governed by a coalition of Likud, the religious parties and the far-right. Those are the choices, really. Does Mitzna understand that? Does anyone in his party understand that?