Thursday, January 23, 2003
Another update on the Israeli elections. Here is the latest Ha'aretz poll, and here is an analysis of that poll from Ha'aretz.
(Aside: I've been asked why I focus on Ha'aretz polls. First, because I know where they are on the web in English. Second, because while they are accused of under-counting the right-wing vote, they tend to be more stable than other polls.)
According to my calculations, the left wing is now at its lowest ebb since mid-December, and is also fragmenting, with Meretz and the Arab parties rising as Labor falls. The right, however, also remains highly fragmented. It is entirely plausible that Shinui (the secular centrist party of protest) will be the second-largest party in the next Knesset. Even so, a Likud-Shinui coalition would not command a majority. Neither would a Likud-Labor coalition, but that is academic anyhow because Labor is not going to depose Mitzna and Mitzna is not going to join a Sharon government.
Sharon, therefore, will have to form either a right-wing coalition with the religious parties, or form an agreement with Shinui immediately after the election and then reach out to all other parties to form a national unity government on the basis of the Likud-Shinui coalition guidelines. I think the latter would be a much smarter move, provided that those guidelines do not rule out allowing religious parties into the coalition. The message should not be to delegitimate one or another sector of Israeli society but to set policies and ask that sector to assent or remain in opposition.
Assuming the final results look something like the most recent poll, here are the big political decisions that each major player will have to make post-election:
* Sharon will have to decide who to reach out to first. I think that the answer should be Shinui. A Likud-Yisrael B'Aliyah-Shinui coalition would clear 50 seats. They can agree on guidelines for security policy, a Palestinian state, reform of the religious establishment, government reform, economic matters and so forth. They would plausibly be a "national unity" government even without Labor. They can then open their arms to Labor, the far-right, and the religious parties, and see who is willing to stay out of government. My prediction: Labor would split in half and one half would join the government, along with One Nation and the National Religious Party. Alternatively, Sharon could reach out to Labor first, but as I am sure he would be rebuffed by Mitzna, we then move on to his second choice, and we're back to the original decision. I think his position approaching Labor is stronger if he already has Shinui on board. If, on the other hand, Sharon reaches out to Avigdor Liberman of National Union first, he can forget about coalition with Labor, and will likely wind up in a government without either Labor or Shinui. And that in turn would mean that the far-right and religious parties would effectively control the government, and they have been willing to topple right-wing governments before when they weren't satisfied. The downside to approaching Shinui is: would it permanently drive Sephardi voters away from Likud, crippling it in future elections? My guess is not - in fact, I suspect it would bring them home to Likud because Shas cannot protect their interests from the opposition. But it is a real risk, and one Sharon will not take lightly.
* Lapid (head of Shinui) will have to decide whether he wants to govern or sit in opposition. Shinui's credibility stems from its willingness to sit in opposition rather than compromise, and its determination to oppose the religious parties. Lapid has also said that he will not sit in a left-wing government and that he wants to be in a national unity government with Likud and Labor. If Shinui is approached by Sharon per my suggestion above, does Lapid grasp Sharon's hand, or demand that Labor be brought in first? I think the latter choice would be a disastrous mistake for Lapid. The only thing worse would be if he joined a right-wing coalition that already included the religious parties, but I don't think Lapid will do that. By contrast, I do think Lapid could agree to sit with Shas or UTJ assuming that the coalition guidelines already included Shinui's demands for religious reform. And it's not completely inconceivable that Shas would accept these guidelines; they would, after all, have already lost, so why not retain some influence? I admit, it's unlikely; but it's not impossible. All that said, I think Lapid will fail this test of leadership, and if Sharon reaches out to him I think he will beg off until Labor is brought in, and will refuse to sit in anything but a Labor-Likud secular unity government. That's just my take on his personality.
* Ben Eliezer (former head of Labor) will have to decide whether to leave the Labor party. Mitzna will refuse to join a Sharon-led government under any circumstances. And he will not be deposed; Labor voters gave him a clear mandate and they knew what they were doing. The bulk of the party wants to go into opposition and regroup. But a substantial minority wants to be a part of government, is not so horribly opposed to Sharon or his policies, and is more afraid of a narrow right-wing government and what it will do to the country than of destroying Labor. Ben Eliezer could lead them, if briefly. And he hates Mitzna enough that he just might do it. It's happened many times before; right-wing factions have been peeling off from Labor since Moshe Dayan's day. They never last long on their own. But they frequently have a big influence on the shape of governments and policy while they last.
* Mitzna (head of Labor) will have to decide whether to embrace Yossi Beilin and form a new Social Democratic party by merging with Meretz. Mitzna's views and Yossi Sarid's (head of Meretz) are not so far apart. And if the right wing of Labor bolts, there will be no logical reason for the remaining Labor and Meretz to exist as separate parties. This election has already been characterized by rivalry between Meretz and Labor, but unlike the rivalry between, say, Likud and Shas, this is not about a sectarian minority jockeying for position and influence; it's about who leads the left. The National Union has a logical reason to exist because it fundamentally differs from Likud, and sits to its right. It is not clear that Meretz and Mitzna's Labor disagree about anything substantive. Mitzna has shown some willingness to entertain the idea in the past, arguing only that there was no enough time to effect the merger before the election. After this election, the calculation might be different.
I'm not predicting what will happen. But it could happen that after the election, Sharon, Sharansky (of Yisrael B'Aliyah) and Lapid (of Shinui) form a core coalition of the center-right with a commitment to reform in a host of areas: economic policy, religious policy, government structure, etc. Ben Eliezer could then lead a faction of 6 or 7 MKs out of Labor into a new party to join the coalition, which would be pushed over 60 MKs by the addition of either a couple of small parties, or the agreement of the ultra-Orthodox to accept the government guidelines on religion, or by the agreement of National Union to accept the government guidelines with respect to the Palestinians. The remains of Labor could then join with Meretz to form a new Social Democrat party that would sit in opposition.
If that happened, Likud would become the governing party, replacing Labor for the next generation. I don't think Likud has shown itself to be ready for that responsibility. So I hope it grows up real, real fast. Because the alternative is the continuing decomposition of Israeli democracy, with potentially disastrous consequences.