‘In Israeli politics, there is the Left side, the Right side and suicide,” decorated war hero Avigdor Kahalani once quipped. His Third Way party entered the Knesset in 1996; he made the joke a few years later, when it became apparent that he and his faction members would soon find themselves back on the outside of the splendid wrought-iron Palombo Gate that marks the entrance to the Israeli parliament.

On election night 1996, as supporters doused him in champagne from Golan Heights wineries, he enthused: “Friends, there is a third way; a group of nice people with principles who didn’t badmouth anybody did it. We showed them that there is another way...”

As you can see, it didn’t take long before Kahalani realized that being nice and principled is not necessarily the easiest way to get elected and it’s certainly not the easiest way to stay in power. And that, in Israel, centrist parties have been doomed to come and go, like the bubbles that give champagne its sparkle but quickly lose their taste once the bottle has been opened. That's not to say that there's no place for principles and decency, of course, but naivety (political or otherwise) is not a good leadership quality.

It is one of the twists of Israeli fate, by the way, that Kahalani’s party – if it is remembered at all – is recalled for its insistent struggle to keep Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights (hence the origins of the bubbly). The party was formed as a breakaway from Labor at a time when Yitzhak Rabin dismissed the residents there as “spinning propellers” and promised a pullback in return for peace with Syria.

I recall Kahalani leading a tour of Jewish communities in Gaza seeking their support for remaining on the Golan. In a week like last week, in which some 50 missiles rained down on the South of the country from the now Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and with Syria’s Bashar Assad slaughtering his own citizens in spitting distance from Israeli communities in the North, it is hard to say whether the memory is bitter or sweet.

The elections of 1996 were among the most dramatic, even by Israeli standards. The circumstances were tragic – the Oslo Accords were blowing up all around us and Rabin had been brutally assassinated. Like most Israeli citizens, I went to sleep late that election night convinced that Shimon Peres had won (as the exit polls predicted) and woke up to find that Binyamin Netanyahu had beaten him after all.

It was first time that I fully took in the meaning of the phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” It’s a phrase former Kadima head Tzipi Livni should have kept in mind during the last general elections, almost four years ago. While she sang her own praises in a victory speech, I wasn’t the only one who realized that she was not the proverbial fat lady and she might have won a battle, but she had not won the war.

In the upcoming elections, too, there are many unknowns that could still affect the end result – ranging from the weather on polling day to the ongoing security situation. There is also the crucial question (from Netanyahu’s point of view) of what Defense Minister Ehud Barak decides to do with his minuscule breakaway Independence party and whether former politicians Livni, Ehud Olmert and Arye Deri decide to rejoin the race: Livni despite feeling slighted by the Kadima party which ousted her from leadership; Olmert despite his recent conviction for breach of trust and ongoing legal struggles over the Holyland Affair; and Deri, who can legally return to politics even though he is one of the far-from-exclusive club of former parliamentarians and ministers who have served time in office and served time in prison. I’ve lost count of how many elections have taken place with pundits questioning what will happen if Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s many investigations ever end in an indictment. (When I’m in a particularly “on the bright side of things” mood, I do think that I’m fortunate to be living in a country that is cracking down on political corruption and whose former politicians are not convicted on political grounds.)

Also in the “you never know” category is Peres’s current position as president, with the ability to determine who will form the next government. That’s Peres who as a politician gained a name as a perennial loser. Nonetheless, having covered more than one election campaign for the Post, I can hear him commenting that “the ballot is better than the bullet” even before he actually says it. And I agree with him.

One of my quirkiest election memories is coming across a young man scraping a pro-Peres sticker off a parked car. Summoning a sense of self-righteousneous and not a little courage, I politely pointed out: “You can’t do that.” “Why not?” came the slightly obstreperous-sounding reply. “Because it’s not right, whatever your political beliefs,” I countered. “But it’s my car,” came the convincing end to the discussion. I still regret that I was too stunned to think of asking why he had decided to remove the sticker.

Every election is different; every election is the same. The difference this time will probably lie in the socio-economic platforms. Under Shelly Yacimovich, Labor is definitely interested in promoting the issues that came to the fore in the social protests of the summer of 2011. For all Netanyahu proclaimed that he called the (slightly early) elections in order to pass a “responsible budget with long-range vision” and that “the State of Israel would prefer a short election campaign of three months over what, in effect, would be a long election campaign that would continue for an entire year and would severely damage the Israeli economy,” the wheeling and dealing will undoubtedly take place. Whether it’s the extraordinary “combinot” that the national budget can produce before elections or the delicate coalition building process that inevitably follows, promises will be made and paid for (or broken).

This is what Livni failed to understand last time: In the Israeli system, it’s not enough to head the party that gains the largest number of votes, you have to lead the party with the best chance of creating a stable coalition.

This is what Netanyahu – who earned his nickname The Magician for his political juggling skills – knows very well. Hence he not only took the trouble to create as broad a coalition as possible during the run-up to the last elections, but he also called these elections with one eye on Iran and security but the other very firmly on the state of his possible rivals for premiership.

In the background is not only the boom of intermittent missiles but also the likely fallout of the economic measures he describes as essential to avoid “the situation of the crumbling economies of Europe.”

I predict that much of the electioneering this time will be carried out via the social media (which is about as much as I am willing to predict). And I’m willing to venture that as soon as the elections are over, the politicians will get down to, well, politics; the ordinary citizens will continue to complain; and there will be much talk of changing the electoral system – as much a tradition as going to the polls. The astute will realize that the elections don’t end when all the ballots have been counted; that simply marks the countdown to the next round. This is the case in all democratic countries. Israelis don’t have to look very far to see that it could be worse.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
liat@jpost.com

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