[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

March 31, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

Elections – finally over!!!!

 

Elections are finally behind us. I admit, I got it wrong, but I was only guessing, what can the official pollsters say for themselves? Millions of dollars were spent on the polls – did they predict the outcome – no!  Did they influence the outcome – probably yes! The election results were a big surprise filled with some good news and with same bad news. The best news is the 12 seats that Likud got. Binyamin Bibi Netanyhu together with a little help from his friend Arik Sharon, brought down the Likud. Now in the aftermath, the in-fighting in the Likud may finally bring down Netanyahu himself.  That is good news for Israeli politics. It is also good that Kadima won enough seats to head the next government, but not enough to for them to be as arrogant as they were before the elections.  Kadima will need coalition partners, and therefore; it is good that Amir Peretz pulled the Labour party through with 20 seats.  I personally wished that Labour would have done better, but 20 seats is strong enough to prevent Kadima from calling all of the shots. Labour demonstrated a strong showing with quite a lot of solidarity that Peretz succeeded in building around his leadership.  He came through as the party leader after years during which Shimon Peres sabotaged any chance of new leaders emerging.  Amir Peretz is a breath of fresh air in Labour and he deserves a lot of credit.

 

The pensioner’s party was the big surprise with 7 seats. It is hard to imagine that 5.9% of the votes, or 185,790 people cast their vote for this “young” party. Everyone was surprised by this development.  Even the head of the party, Rafi Eitan commended when asked what was their political-security platform – he responded “We went into elections as a single issue sectoral party, now we are a political party – give us a few days to determine what we stand for!” Most of the analysts say that the majority of votes for the pensioners came from young people. Many of these people were undecided voters who were decidedly fed up with Israeli politics and Israeli politicians. Many people thought that they either would not vote, or they would vote for the Green Leaf party advocating the legalization of marijuana.  As one analyst said “they voted kashish instead of hashish!  (kashish means senior citizens). There is no doubt that retired people in Israel have a hard time.  Most seniors don’t have pensions and after the cuts in social benefits of Bibi as Finance Minister, most of them can’t get by on their national insurance allowances.  We all hope that one day we will get old and be retired and if their campaign to institute a mandatory pension and to secure other rights is successful, all of us will benefit.  There is also little doubt that the pensioners will join any possible coalition.  It has been reported that numbers 2-7 on the list were all former Labour party supporters and union activists. The number 1 on the list, Rafi Eitan was very close to Sharon as served as advisor on counter-terrorism to Prime Minister Shamir.  Eitan was the agent behind the US-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.  Eitan was thought to be very right wing, however, according to one Israeli source, Sharon sent Eitan to talk with the Gush Katif settlers to convince them to accept the disengagement plan.

 

The worst news of the elections is that almost 26,000 Israelis voted for the Jewish Nationalist nazi party of Baruch Marzel – the Jewish National Front. Fortunately they did not get enough votes to make it into the Knesset, but a significant number of Israeli voters fit into very nicely to the ilks of Jean Marie Le Pen, Joerg Haider and other fascists.  This is, of course, not news, but Election Day allows us to have a good look in the mirror. 

 

Avigdor Lieberman, the other leading Israeli fascist did make it into the Knesset with 8.9% of the vote or 281,850 votes. Most of Lieberman’s 11 seats came from new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  He sold them that he would deliver the goods on achieving them a better standing in the Israeli socio-economic dimension. Lieberman’s strong-man campaign spoke to their feelings of low level on the totem poll.  Lieberman’s appeal to certain segments of the public was based on his anti-democratic plan to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Israeli Palestinians from their citizenship. With the overriding attention given to the so-called demographic issue in Israel, Lieberman provides a quick fixit all solution – move the border to exclude the Arabs from being part of the State of Israel.  Let’s hope that Olmert will keep Lieberman in the opposition together with Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud.

 

The religious parties held their ground as did the Arab parties. Meretz came in with a disappointing five seats (down from six) and the knives within the party have already been pulled out against the leadership of Yossi Beilen.  The most dramatic power struggles will now take place in Likud and in Meretz. In light of the Meretz failure and in view of the positive feeling within the Labour Party, Ofir Pines from Labour has already called for Meretz to merge with Labour to increase their bargaining power in the coalition negotiations.  If a power struggle will move forward in Meretz, it will block any chances of the merger, as the new potential leaders, such as Zahava Galon, who has already challenged Beilin’s leadership, has come out strongly against going together with Labour. There isn’t much difference today between Labour and Meretz and it seems to me that a merger would be beneficial for both.

 

The 17th Knesset will have 38 new members.  The Knesset will have 34 Mizrahi members (Jews originating from Islamic countries).  There are 14 new immigrants, 11 Arabs, 32 religious Jews, 16 women 18 Ph. D’s or professors, 14 former senior military officers, 7 settlers, 3 kibbutz members and 2 residents of moshav farming communities.

 

Coalitions

 

There are two main possible coalitions – more or less the same: Kadima (29 seats), Labour (20), Shas (12) pensioners (7), Yehadut Hatorah (5) and Meretz (5) – this means a coalition of 79 seats – quite strong.  There is a possibility that Olmert will not invite Meretz to join bringing the coalition down to 74.  Even with Kadima, Labour, pensionsers, and Shas there are 68 members.  There are all kinds of possible developments, but Olmert will want parties that support his convergence plan, but knowing that it won’t be implemented for at least two years, he has more bargaining space particularly because he understand that the other parties want to fulfill their social-economic agenda that Olmert will pay for.  Olmert has 45 days to form a coalition and then some 40 days to pass the budget.  If the budget for 2006 does not pass until then, we go back to new elections.

 

There will be a lot of jockeying for positions and seats and a lot of rhetoric will be tossed around as part of the haggling to form the coalition at the lowest possible price.  Most of what will be said in public in the coming weeks will be negotiating spins and should not be taken too seriously.  Despite what the politicians say that they are concerned with the issues and the platform, what they are mostly concerned with is the seats in the government. These are crucial issues and should not be minimized.  The personality of the Finance Minister of the Defense Minister is more important than what the Government guidelines will say.

 

For the sake of us all, I sincerely hope that Shaul Mofaz will finally be removed from the Ministry of Defense.  My choice for defense would be Ami Ayalon or Tzipi Livni. I would like to see Yuli Tamir from Labour in the Education Ministry and I would also like to see Labour in the Finance Ministry, although I think that Olmert will keep Finance for Kadima.  There is a price that will be paid to the religious parties. In all fairness, Shas children deserve equal rights as do the ultra orthodox children, on the condition that their schools are placed under the same supervision of the Ministry that other government schools are subjected to. Education should be a high priority in the allocation of the budget as should the health system, which is suffering from acute illnesses for years. Let’s hope that the wholesale payoffs and kickbacks of the past are not renewed as millions was wasted on payment to the religious parties simply to keep them in government.

 

Palestinians

 

Prior to elections, Olmert and Livni refused to meet with Abu Mazen. This was a big mistake.  In his victory speech, Olmert invited Abu Mazen to meet with him. Abu Mazen personally called Olmert, Peretz and Beilen after the elections to voice his congratulations to them and to accept the offer to return to negotiations.  After last night’s terrorist attack killing four Israelis next to Kedumim, Livni stated that the Government of Israel is cutting all ties with the Palestinians including the President and will only maintain contacts for humanitarian needs.  This was a very strange statement coming from an acting foreign minister in a transition government.  It seems quite irresponsible for Livni to attempt to tie the hands of a government which has not yet even been formed.  Just two nights before Olmert invited Abu Mazen to meet with him and then the Livni statement! Quite strange and quite un-strategic! Who will Israel talk to? That is the question that most Palestinians are asking themselves.  It seems that Olmert believes that he only has to negotiate with Secretary Rice and not with the Palestinians. I would advise the new government of Israel that has not yet been born that they should think carefully and strategically about dealing with the Palestinians. Failing to make peace with Fatah and engaging Abu Mazen led to Hamas – what’s next?