Israel's elections--Kadima charts uncertain course

September 30, 2008
Joel Mowbray

Across Israel on the eve of the recent primary election likely to decide the next prime minister, most Israelis shared the same feeling: apathy.

In stark contrast to the political theater playing out in the United States, the common refrain in Israel was: "It doesn't matter." Perhaps spoiled by enjoying many larger-than-life leaders in decades past, Israeli voters believe their options for the foreseeable future are limited to a series of deeply flawed candidates.

Exacerbating widespread disenchantment, winner Tzipi Livni (who could become the next prime minister without facing another election) captured her primary with less than 20,000 votes. Roughly 99 percent of voting-age adults went anywhere but a polling place on election day.

Though mild graft and borderline bribery have long been accepted as par for the course, Israel has been rocked by a seemingly endless string of corruption scandals - the biggest of which triggered the latest election.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, battling allegations that he pocketed envelopes stuffed with cash from a U.S. businessman, stepped down from his post as leader of the Kadima Party, which spearheaded the current majority coalition. In Israel, the party with the largest number of seats typically forms the majority coalition, and Mr. Olmert's centrist but left-leaning Kadima had enjoyed a surprisingly resilient government. But unlike in the United States, new elections can be called suddenly, as soon as a majority of legislators decide to do so.

In the coming weeks, Mr. Olmert's newly elected replacement Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has the tricky task of forming a new government, which likely will require her to keep on board either the left-wing Labor Party or the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction - or both. Though certainly doable, it is by no means a forgone conclusion that she will be able to craft a majority coalition. Should she fail, new general parliamentary elections will be held - and she would be an underdog.

If a general election were held today, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party probably would take the largest number of seats, which means that many sitting legislators have a strong incentive to keep the current government in power. That backroom deals will largely determine the fate of the ruling government only adds to the palpable sense of powerlessness felt by so many Israelis. Yet, even if voters get to vote for a new Knesset, they won't be able to punish or reward individual elected officials.

Israeli legislators avoid any personal accountability, as there are no districts and voters nationwide only pull the lever for one party. Thus no one in the Knesset specifically represents the interests of, say, wineries in the Golan Heights or the beleaguered residents of Sderot, the development town near the Gaza border that has been the target of thousands of rockets in recent years.

Much like a child left unsupervised, politicians who risk minimal consequences for their actions cannot be trusted to behave responsibly. This is probably as much to blame as any other factor for the disconnect between the Israeli electorate and the people they've put into power.

One of Israel's savviest pollsters, Keevoon CEO Mitchell Barak, believes voters will be in a funk for a while. Pointing to extensive polling and focus groups he's conducted, Mr. Barak says, "Israelis feel that this is a leadership crisis. They see no real leaders. What compounds their frustration is that they see no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no next generation of leadership in the wings being groomed to take over in five or 10 years."

Strangely, Mrs. Livni benefits by having no track record. The heads of the other two main parties, Mr. Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak, have already had a shot - and neither is remembered fondly. Mr. Barak has no chance of becoming the next prime minister, whereas Mr. Netanyahu has re-earned some respect for his time as finance minister and as spokesman during the 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Not only is Mrs. Livni new to leading a party - let alone a government - but she has pointedly refused to give specifics on how she would protect Israel from terrorism or the looming threat of a nuclear Iran. Channeling Frank Sinatra, she has said repeatedly, "I'll do it my own way." Absent is any mention of what exactly that means.

Then again, security is almost a non-issue in Israel these days - rather odd considering that the daily threat of suicide bombings in cafes and buses is barely in the rearview mirror. In light of the military failings against Hezbollah and the constant futility of "peace talks," many Israelis feel that Mrs. Livni could do no worse defending Israel than someone with a security background or a former prime minister.

Of course, such sentiments could be right. But if they're not, who becomes the next prime minister would very much matter.

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