Tuesday, November 05, 2002
This story from Ha'aretz, if true, has significant implications for the Israeli elections and for the nature of the next government.
I agree with the analysis that Shas is competing with Likud for votes. I also agree that this next election will basically be between the right and the far-right. The stronger the far-right is, the more it will be in a position to dictate terms to Likud, which will head the next government. I believe that a Likud-headed government would be very good for Israel, but that the government should be a broad coalition that includes Labor if at all possible, and should not be dependent on the far-right for its survival. That being the case, I'm worried by any analysis suggesting that Shas is going to throw in with Effie Eitam and the rest of the far-right. Given that I expect Shas to win between 10 and 15 seats, and the far-right (NRP, National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu and Moledet) to win at least 15 seats, maybe more, that's potentially a 30-seat bloc to Likud's right. In that scenario, they will be almost as large a bloc as the center-right bloc led by Likud (which would include Likud, Gesher, Yisrael B'Aliyah and whatever remains of the Center Party, probably nothing). According to the article, Likud is expected to get around 30 seats; add in these other parties and we're probably around 40. That's less than I would have predicted, actually, but 19 seats for Labor is also more than I would have predicted.
In any event, if Shas refuses to join a government of national unity, then Likud will lead a staunchly right-wing government, which will cause Israel serious problems diplomatically. Likud needs a threat to its right so it can plausibly explain to the U.S. and other allies that it cannot be pushed too far, lest the far-right take power. But it cannot be dependent on that bloc without threatening those alliances. So Shas's maneuvering - again, assuming the story is right - is worrisome, particularly given Shas's history of pragmatism on matters of foreign policy. I would have expected them to run a social-oriented campaign like they usually do.
Finally, I am surprised that Labor polls 19 seats. Alongside the war on the right of the spectrum, there's going to be a three-cornered struggle on the left/liberal end of the spectrum between Labor, Meretz and Shinui. I think Shinui has a real chance to break out of the pack if it can pitch its message right. Shinui is pragmatic and centrist on both economic and security matters; its key issue is secularism, on which it is uncompromising. Given that Labor has done nothing to rein in the religious parties, and given much of Israel's tilt to the right, if you were a liberal, secular voter, concerned about the security situation and unimpressed with the Labor leadership, why wouldn't you vote for Shinui? Why shouldn't Shinui get 10 seats in the next Knesset, and become a plausible alternative to the religious parties in a coalition? Meanwhile, Meretz can plausibly argue that Labor doesn't deserve the "peace" vote under Ben-Eliezer's leadership. (Of course, he might not win the primary, but even if he doesn't his tenure will weigh on the more left-wing voters when they contemplate voting for Labor.)
Labor is trapped by its lack of definition; no one knows what the party stands for anymore. It is going to have to declare war on Shinui or Meretz if it wants to remain in business. I think they would be wise to declare war in Shinui; if Shas is seriously going to ally itself with the Yesha council, then it will no longer be a plausible partner for Labor in a hypothetical future Labor government. So Labor may as well make a full-throated pitch for the secularist vote.
It's going to be interesting, anyhow.