Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, January 05, 2006
Some other thoughts in the wake of Sharon's stroke.

First, when Sharon first formed Kadima I thought it made sense for both Likud and Labor to focus on uniting the right and left respectively rather than try to take centrist votes away from Kadima, both because National Union (for Likud), Meretz (for Labor) and Shas (for both) were easier prospects but also because if one party followed this strategy and the other fought Kadima for the center, the one who followed the "unite the extreme vote" strategy would win. Why? Because if, say, Labor played left and Likud played center, Likud would be squeezed from both directions - by Kadima and National Union - and Kadima would be fighting off Likud by playing hawkish, which would push marginal left-wing voters towards Labor. Only if both parties aimed to the center could either win with that strategy, which meant that neither should try. Post-stroke, I think everyone's instinct was to say that the game had changed, and now both traditional parties have a real chance to recapture the center. After thinking about it, I think this is false. It's only true if Kadima rapidly disintegrates; in that case: yes, both parties should aim for centrist votes. But if the Labor defectors, for example, don't rapidly rush back to Amir Peretz asking forgiveness, and Kadima more generally holds together, then I don't think Sharon's absence changes the calculation. This is especially true because of the nature of the two party leaders of Labor and Likud - the one a far leftist with no defense experience and little government experience of any kind, the latter a duplicitous Machiavel who has now twice destroyed his party - but it would be true even if these special factors did not obtain. Unless Kadima is an obvious also-ran party, it makes more sense for Labor and Likud to pile up votes on the extremes than to play for the center, simply because of the math.

Second, it is much more important for Kadima to come up with a party structure than a party platform. Kadima supposedly stands for nothing but political opportunism. Untrue. Kadima stands for something very straightfoward: they are the only party that can lead the withdrawal from the territories. Why? Because they are the only party with a leadership sufficiently credible and experienced on national security that is also committed to a withdrawal. No one will trust Amir Peretz, who still says nice things about Oslo, to safeguard their security. No one will trust Bibi to actually pull out. (Nor, for that matter, should anyone on the right trust him not to pull out. No one should trust him, period.) It is true that Kadima has no clear position on religion/state questions, or on economic questions, nor does it have a clear demographic base. All that is to the good, for now. No one is voting for Kadima for any reason but the one I mentioned. That happens to be the overwhelmingly most important issue in Israel today, which is why they should still be favored to win if they can convince Israelis that they can govern themselves. They'll never be permitted to govern the country if they don't prove that first. Which is why it is of paramount importance that the party develop some structure, and a legitimate process for selecting and leader and a list, and why the party platform is of secondary if not tertiary importance.

Third, Shinui has just been granted a new lease on life. They are Sharon's most natural coalition partner, but when Sharon left Likud to found Kadima they started to have a harder time convincing people of the continued need to vote for them. Now, Tommy Lapid can make his case again. Without Sharon around, people may be more interested in hedging their bets without weakening the centrist bloc as a whole. A vote for Shinui is a vote for the center, and a vote, effectively, to keep Kadima honest. Shinui actually stands for something beyond security and withdrawal, after all; they may be perceived by some as the conscience of the centrist bloc. Moreover, Shinui is a home for Labor-type voters who were willing to vote for Sharon but who will be reluctant to vote for Olmert or Mofaz or other Likudnik refugees, a place they would find demographically and ideologically friendly, more so, in some ways, than Amir Peretz's Labor. If Olmert has trouble holding on to these votes, Shinui has a good shot at taking them.

Fourth, it is very hard to see how Kadima forms a coalition without Labor. For that reason, it is critical that Kadima keep Labor's total down. If Kadima gets 30 seats, Labor 15, and Likud 20, Kadima will be the new governing party of Israel, Labor and Shinui will partner with it, and Likud will lead the opposition from the right. If Kadima gets 30 seats, Labor 25, and Likud 10, then Labor is really the opposition, and governing with it will be difficult, if for no other reason than Labor will always be tempted to bolt them government to re-run the election and win this time. But coalition with Likud, even if Likud is devastated, is unlikely; Likud now stands for nothing if not opposition to what Kadima was founded to achieve. A Likud that formed a coalition with Kadima might as well dissolve. Meanwhile, a coalition with neither Likud nor Labor is unlikely to be possible. Shas has trended sharply rightward on national questions, and anyhow Shinui and Shas won't sit together, and Shinui is certain to be in the coalition. Who does that leave? Maybe one or two of the smaller Orthodox parties. Even if Kadima gets 40 seats, it will be hard to see how it will form a coalition with nothing but Shinui and a minor religious party or two. So, if Kadima needs Labor, and therefore needs Labor to be weak, that suggests that nothing is more important than keeping folks like Chaim Ramon and especially Shimon Peres in the party. Nothing, that is, except assuring that none of them winds up being party leader.

Finally, Sharon's entire Prime Ministership, and the rise of Kadima, proves that Israel needs a Presidential system and needs to move from proportional representation in the Knesset to at least a partially jurisdictional-based representation system. Israel faces existential questions. It has faced them for all of its history, but in its first three decades Israel was a much more unified society - not uniform, but unified. And since the decline and fall of the Labor Party it has done a much less good job of facing those questions. When a country faces existential questions, it needs a strong leader. A parliamentary system can produce a strong leader, but usually only when the society is relatively unified. When it is not - as in Israel, as in post-war Italy, as pre-war France and Germany - it produces either paralysis or incipient civil conflict. Sharon managed to pull the country together and govern as a strong leader by sheer force of personality, but the structure of government worked against him at every turn. And while Sharon successfully centralized power in his own hands, it is not obvious that civil liberties, or economic policy, or religious questions, or any of the other matters that divide Israelis should be dealt with the way establishing and securing the nation's borders should be, with a single, strong hand. That's why Israel needs a Presidential system: the people need to be able to vote for one man who can decisively lead on existential, national questions, while also voting for a constituency party. Israel had a system akin to this when they had direct election of the Prime Minister, but because the PM still had to form a coalition, and Knesset could still bring down the government, this system was fatally flawed, grossly over-inflating the power of sectarian parties at the expense of the center. A Presidential system would remove the ability of sectarians to hold the country hostage, but if the Knesset were still elected by proportional rep then they could still paralyze economic and social policy. (By the way: by sectarian parties I do not mean exclusively the religious parties, though Shas is the exemplar in this regard. Shinui is also a sectarian party; so was Am Echad back when it existed; so are the Arab parties.) That's one reason to move to an at least partly jurisdictional-based system. The other reason is that until Israel elects its parliament from geographic areas, there will be little incentive for Arab Israelis to vote for a mainstream party or for the mainstream parties to seriously court the Arab vote. And the alienation of Israel's Arab citizenry is the country's biggest long-term problem. This is a hobby horse I've been on for some time, but this whole Kadima business has only reinforced my convictions on this score.