With last week’s announcement of Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert’s plan to resign in September, Israel plunged into a defining moment in the politics of the 61-year-old Middle Eastern democracy.
Probably the only leader of a democracy with voter approval ratings lower than George W. Bush (14%, according to one Israeli poll), Ohlmert had been battered by the weak performance of the Israel’s armed forces against Hizballah militants in Lebanaon as well as an ongoing police investigation into allegations he took illegal gifts from an American businessman. Thus, Ohlmert announced last week he would resign as prime minister on September 17th, the same day as his Kadima Party holds a primary to select a new leader, who (presumably) would then be elected prime minister by its members in the Knesset (parliament).
Not so fast, cry opposition politicians. Likud (conservative) Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu said that Kadima’s poor leadership during the Lebanon fight two years ago and the Ohlmert scandal necessitates a general election before that scheduled for 2010. Netanyahu does not even believe that the new Kadima leader should become prime minister without a new election. His demands for voting now are, in all likelihood, influenced by recent surveys, with one showing Likud holding an eight percentage point lead over Kadima (formed in ’06 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a Likudist who broke with his party over acceptance of the Palestinian Authority and removal of Israeli settlers from Palestinian land; when Sharon suffered a massive stroke later that year, his Number Two man Ohlmert became prime minister).
Like Italy, Germany, and other parliamentary democracies with multiple and diverse parties, Israel holds elections that more often than not end with no mandate and require multi-party coalitions for someone to govern. That usually leads to another election.
Syria was bombed by Israel last year to stop development of a nuclear facility allegedly built with North Korean help. The Gaza Strip bordering Israel is now ruled by the militant Palestinian faction knows as Hamas. So the coming change in Israeli government takes on a new dimension. And if an election is to be held, it is likely to attract as much interest worldwide as that for President of the United States this fall.
Will Kadima Say "Mrs. Peel, You’re Needed?"
Within minutes of Ohlmert’s announced exodus, all political eyes in Israel and Washington were on Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who was in Washington for meetings witih Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the time. By far the most popular politician in Kadima, the 50-year-old Livni brings glamour and panache to the succession battle. A political "princess" (both members were members of Irgun, the feared guerilla unit that fought for Israeli independence), Livini herself worked for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.
This has led admirers to suggest that Livni did undercover work hunting terrorists, that she is a true-to-life Mrs. Emma Peel, the sexy secret agent played by Diana Rigg in British TV’s campy ‘60s series "The Avengers." Detractors counter that it was Livni’s sister who was the true "Mrs. Peel" for the Mossad and that Livni’s own role there was far less glamorous. (No one can say for sure, as the Mossad agents’ work is classified even after they retire).
Livni’s problem is, as Columbus University law school professor and former Reagan Administration official Marshall Breger told me, "She called on Ohlmert to resign [after Lebanon], but did not quit herself. Had she done so, she would have become prime minister then and there." Breger, an authority on Israeli politics who is acquainted with many of the country’s leaders, warned me: "Don’t write off Gen. Mofaz–he knows the grass roots Kadima people far better than she does."
Breger was referring to Livni’s chief rival in the September 17th primary, retired general and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz. A career soldier who rose to be Army chief of staff (three of Israel’s last five prime ministers have been generals), the 60-year-olf Mofaz joined Kadima after his retirement from service and has been defense minister and now transport minister.
Like the career soldier that he is, Mofaz takes a hard line on Iran and Syria and is known to consider bombing Iran a viable option. Livni’s views are less focused.
A just-completed poll in “Yediot Ahronot" Israel’s largest newspaper, showed that among Kadima’s 62,000 registered voters, Livni leads Mofaz by a margin of 41% to 32%–strong, all right, but not impossible for Mofaz to overcome in six weeks.
"Yes, Sir, That’s My Bibi" or "The Other Barack"–One More Time?
The great irony of the current political drama is Israel is that most eyes are on the two-year-old Kadima Party and not on its long-standing parties–Likud and Labor.
Both are headed by former prime ministers who are well-known to America: "Bibi" Netanyahu, whose accent-free English and mastery of soundbites was developed while Israel’s UN ambassador (and a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows), and Ehud Barack, one of Israel’s two most decorated soldiers whose exploits included subduing a gang of Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorists in 1973 while disguised as a woman.
With his hard-line on the Palestinians and Lebanon, Netanyahu, prime minister from 1996-99, could be expected to the toughest in dealing with Hezbollah, Hamas or any perceived threat to Israel. The 66-year-old Barack, prime minster from 1999-2001, is the Israeli leader who has been most favorable toward the land-for-peace view embodied by his mentor, the late Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But, in large part because of his background as war hero, Barack has been free of charges from the right that he is "appeaser" or "sell-out." Like Britain’s Tony Blair and Bill Clinton here, Barack is considered a centrist is a party that is decidedly left-leaning. Indeed, for all of his guilt-edged resume as soldier-statesman, Barack only narrowly won the primary for Labor leadership over a more leftist candidate in 2006.
Final footnote: Netanyahu and Barack were considered failures after their respective defeats. Both thereupon resigned their party posts and Knesset seats to pursue opportunities in business. Both eventually returned to politics and reclaimed leadership of their parties. They are living proof that, in Israeli politics, one writes off a politician at his own risk, and often, the mortally wounded recover.