My Word: Parties and party poopers

My Word Parties and par

By
January 2, 2010 20:17

 
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'Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party." This phrase - or its later version, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the country" - dates back to the carbon-copy age of early typewriters. It lived alongside "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," as one of the sentences used in secretarial courses to test typing speed and accuracy. The phrase popped back into my mind last week as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continued to court Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, or at least her party members, and tried to bring them into the Likud for the sake, we are told, of the country, and certainly to strengthen his own list. The sound of typewriters might have ceased long ago but some things stay the same: Politics, or more to the point, politicians, among them. Israeli voters are not shocked when leaders elected on one platform quickly do a left or right turn or change their tune. Following the May 2006 polls, then-opposition leader Netanyahu dismissed newly elected prime minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan and Palestinian policy with the words: "There has never been a government among all the governments of Israel that has given up on so much from the start." Netanyahu reserved a special barb for the size of the coalition and what he called its unprecedented wasteful spending: "To paraphrase Churchill, 'Never has so much been owed by so few to so many.'" This is the Netanyahu who has since frozen settlement construction (albeit for a 10-month period), openly voiced support of a two-state plan and is now courting Kadima members with promises of deputy ministerial positions and perks. IN THE last elections, Livni's slogan was "Politika aheret" - "a different type of politics." She constantly slammed Netanyahu for "petty politicking" and doing anything to stay in power - and Netanyahu has, one assumes, not disappointed her in that sense. But whereas once her image was of squeaky-clean integrity, she now appears increasingly petulant and spoilt. Kadima MKs constantly cite their election slogan "Bibi is still the same Bibi," but Netanyahu has obviously learned something since his disastrous 1999 campaign. From the outset, Netanyahu - who can't forget that it was his own bloc that brought him down 10 years ago, ending his first term as prime minister - has stressed that he would seek as broad a coalition as possible. Kadima, on the other hand, needs to try to topple the government as soon as possible, before Livni's standing completely disappears and its frustrated members return to the Likud and power. Livni, instead of rising to the challenge, has yet to fully explain what she stands for, let alone why she ran. Late on election night, despite having held the positions of party leader, foreign minister and justice minister, she proved she didn't understand Israeli politics. She did so embarrassingly publicly with a televised victory speech which, as Meretz No. 2 Ilan Gilon put it, was more like "a bat mitzva speech": thanks to this one, thanks to that one. No sign that there is a global economic crisis, a nearly-nuclear Iran and terrorist missiles landing ever closer to the center of the country. Even more noticeably, there was no recognition of what was obvious to most viewers: She had won the most votes, but not the elections. She did not have the necessary support to create a government. In fact, had she played her hand correctly after taking over from Olmert as Kadima leader last September, she would have been able to create a coalition with Shas and Labor and the country would not have had to go to the polls in the first place. Her speech that night was an echo of her "katan alai" ("that's nothing for me") dismissive approach that turned into a catchphrase. She had reason to be proud of her achievements: She had inherited a party way down in the opinion polls and put it back on the political map. But she was not a political animal. Her instincts were not as honed as Netanyahu's. THE PRIME minister knows how to play the political game. He does not need Livni - yet. He enjoys a coalition of 74 out of the 120-member Knesset and is slaloming his way around hurdles at full speed: from the settlement freeze (to the dismay of many of his own constituents) to construction over the Green Line in Jerusalem (irking the US and EU). His invitation to the sulky opposition leader, indeed, angered many members of his own party, aware that their positions and chances of promotion on a joint list would be adversely affected. Netanyahu was extending a limp hand to Livni, but all the while he was looking beyond her and trying to entice frustrated Kadima members to come in out of the cold. He needs at least the seven Kadima MKs on the verge of breaking away to ensure his majority should Labor continue to crumble on the Left or Israel Beiteinu suddenly drop out on the Right. More than Netanyahu needs Livni, however, she needs him - to stay relevant. Livni failed to read the political map correctly a second time just after the last elections, when she could have joined Netanyahu's government from a position of strength. Without losing face, she could have cited the greater cause and that "now is the time for all good men..." spirit and gained good seats for both herself and her party members. By failing to do so, she has not only marginalized herself, she has further antagonized those who most threaten her leadership - like Shaul Mofaz, who clearly pines for some of the clout he once had as defense minister. And the more Netanyahu talks in conciliatory tones about his willingness to start diplomatic talks with the Palestinians and Arab states, the less Livni's track record on negotiating with PA head Mahmoud Abbas gives her a political advantage. Livni last week reportedly explained her decision to turn Netanyahu down by saying, "Thank heavens, we're not at war like the prime minister is presenting the situation." She's wrong. The threats she ignored on election night are still there. And she should also be fighting for her political survival, not dismissing this and belittling that. AFTER THE last elections, I wrote that one solution for Kadima would be to sit in opposition but a establish a shadow government. It would not be easy for former ministers to turn into literally shadows of their former selves, but it would provide them with a sense of purpose and - most importantly in a world in which politics is increasingly played like a TV reality show - it would give them a platform from which to keep their names in the public eye. It might even, perhaps, provide a welcome system of checks and balances. Historically, new parties in Israel do not survive long. The novelty appeal wears off. Usually sooner rather than later, the game of musical chairs is over. The music stops. And the partygoers are in danger of discovering that while they were busy, the noise they created had prevented them from hearing what was going on outside. Just up the street in the global village there is a neighborhood bully. This is no kid with an air pistol. It is an Islamist fanatic about to acquire nuclear weapons. Now would be the right time for all good men - and women - to at least show leadership.

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