Barak smiles 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Lately I have found myself at odd (and not so odd) moments whistling the tune of "The winner takes it all." It was probably my subconscious reaction to the opening in Tel Aviv this week of the smash hit musical MAMMA MIA! combined with an overdose of elections: the Labor Party primaries on June 12 and the presidential elections held in the Knesset the following day.
The song was, of course, not altogether appropriate. Ehud Barak, who won the Labor race, still has many a campaign to fight before he can run as potential prime minister (again) in the national elections. And as for Shimon Peres, well, the main news as the media relentlessly and predictably pointed out, was that he had finally won something. The man who a decade ago tempted fate by asking party hacks "Am I a loser?" and receiving a resoundingly affirmative answer and about whom a biography was written entitled The Man Who Didn't Know How to Win even failed to gain the necessary majority in the first round of voting, starting his seven-year term as Israel's ninth president on a sour note.
And neither Barak - replacing Amir Peretz - nor Peres - who takes over from Moshe Katsav - has a tough act to follow.
STILL, IT would be ungracious under the circumstances to go around singing "Waterloo," the Eurovision Song Contest hit that first catapulted ABBA to fame in the 1970s.
Peres, if he has had time to think of ABBA at all, might opt for the "Super Trouper" theme song. And comeback kid Barak, an amateur pianist who has already served as prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff, might well be humming "Take a chance on me" as he steps into the spotlight again.
Both elections show that in Israeli politics, anything can happen and frequently does. At 83, Peres has been politically eulogized many a time so that ultimately getting the older statesman-type job is definitely something to sing and dance about on his part. Likud MK and former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, on the other hand, was until recently - very recently, as in last week before Peres officially announced his candidacy - considered the front-runner for the position. He graciously bowed out before the second round of voting (as did third candidate Colette Avital) to ensure Peres's election, quipping with his famous sense of humor that at least he'll go down in history as the man whom Peres beat.
The Israeli president is generally considered a figurehead, although his very significant responsibilities include the right to grant presidential pardons. This could definitely be a factor to consider in the current situation in which a long list of top politicians and officials from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert down are being investigated in various scandals. And picture this: Peres might be in a situation in which he is asked to pardon his presidential predecessor if Katsav is indicted and convicted of sexual offenses.
As president, too, Peres - the longtime Labor luminary who left for Kadima - could be the man who has to determine which party head has the better chance of forming a government following general elections.
And if that scenario not so long ago would have seemed as unlikely as the plots of ABBA spin-offs MAMMA MIA!, Muriel's Wedding, and The Adventures Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, just consider some of the other twists of political and personal fate involved. Pundits are focusing on the likely battle for the premiership being fought by Barak as Labor leader and Binyamin Netanyahu in a showdown not quite as retro as ABBA's music but certainly a disharmonious blast from the past.
OLMERT HAS been almost written off, bowing out to only the faint sound of handclapping. Ditto Peretz, who has been booed by the mainstream Hebrew media. But the Barak-Netanyahu reprise sets the stage for a huge range of possibilities and proves that in political life, as in escapist movies and shows, almost anything goes if you're willing to publicly face the music and admit past mistakes.
A sequel featuring Olmert and Peretz sometime in the future is not completely inconceivable. Peretz, after all, has proven he still has a following in what is rather arrogantly known as "the periphery" and if he sticks to his social welfare guns in the future instead of aiming for the Defense Ministry, he could well come back from the sidelines.
But for now, particularly following last summer's war, the security situation is definitely still the No. 1 issue. With all due respect to the elections and all that jazz, the most important developments last week were not the latest configuration of Labor and the new resident at Beit Hanassi but the Hamas takeover in Gaza and who to hold responsible for any Kassams slamming into Sderot and the surrounding communities.
As I have noted in the past, the question asked by Israelis when they talk with friends, family and complete strangers - it remains one of Israel's more endearing traits that instead of discussing sports or the weather, people prefer to hold candid conversations on politics - is not "What would you vote for?" but "Who would you vote for?"
It gets personal, and hence dirty. On the other hand, one of the joys of democracy is that election results are not a forgone conclusion. Syrians might have put on a show recently when they elected Bashar Assad (again) but given he wasn't running against anyone and most Syrians are more scared of the bullet than the ballot it's a wonder he only got some 90 percent of the vote.
FOR ALL WE love to complain about them - another enduring if not endearing Israeli trait - Barak and Netanyahu will at least face each other in democratic elections, even if a friend who was asked "Who will you vote for?" answered with the borrowed quip: "I don't know. It seems to be a question of choosing between the evil of two lessers."
One thing is certain, the Labor race was just the curtain-raiser. General elections are bound to follow. The only question remains how soon. Barak presumably wants a decent period to get his political house in order and try to prove to the public that he's learned from past mistakes and should be given a second chance as prime minister. Netanyahu would probably benefit from early elections, especially if running against Barak.
No, forget the "winner takes it all" approach. I fear it's more a case of "Mamma Mia! Here I go again!"
The political show - the best in town - must go on.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.