Politics in the shadow of war

Israel is currently in the verbally explosive situation of a political campaign that began hours, or perhaps minutes, after the end of a week-long military operation. Politicians, media personalities, and just released reservists are all over the map in their expressions. It is not difficult to chart them according to where they were politically before the operation, now expressing what could be expected from members of one or another party, followers of one or another of the newly ascendant claimants of leading a new party, or one or another faction within an existing party. As I learned long ago in Fenway Park, you can''t tell the players without a score card.
It is the height of Israel''s primary season. Dues-paying Likud and Labor members will vote early next week to rank the candidates on their party''s lists. According to proportional representation on election day January 22nd, each party will send to the Knesset its proportion of the vote, beginning with the candidate ranked highest on its list and going down until it finishes with its share of the Knesset. Currently rankings 1-50 on Likud''s list are considered "realistic" (with the lower numbers only "possibles"), with lower rankings having a diminishing chance to become Knesset Members; rankings 1-30 on Labor''s list are considered realistic, with both party numbers changing according to each day''s opinion polls. Both Likud and Labor have internal factions ranging from moderates to extremists, in the case of Likud to the right of center and in Labor to the left.
Candidates are traveling the country, meeting small and large gatherings in living rooms and community centers, hugging, shaking hands, encouraging supporters and being assertively polite to critics, before rushing off to another session organized by their friends, relatives, supporters, or--in the case of sitting MKs--their parliamentary assistant. The talk, discussion, and news programs on radio and television are providing opportunities to those candidates who succeed in getting air time.
Not to be ignored are other parties. Polls are showing that Jewish Home, under new leadership, is appealing to Likud voters who feel that their party leaders have not been far enough to the right. Tsipi Livni may be coming to the end of her publicly ambivalent pondering and may announce a new party early next week. If so, she is likely to clip some votes from the other new centrist party headed by Yair Lapid, and assure an even dimmer result for her former colleagues and rivals in Kadima, now said to be on the edge of falling below the minimum number of votes required for entering the Knesset.
Ehud Barak''s Independence Party has improved its polls as a result of the Gaza operation, and is now predicted to enter the Knesset. Predictions are that the triumvarite of Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman will return as Prime Minister and Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs.
The greatest portions of the political noise are about national defense and the recent operation in Gaza. Most are saying it didn''t go far enough in destroying Hamas. Reservists who had spent the week sitting around and training near Gaza, with two killed and several injured by mortars or missles, are saying they wanted to go in and finish the job. Some are more modest, eschew a costly ground operation, but say that the air and artillery bombardment should have gone on until Hamas called "uncle."
Ultra-Orthodox parties are off in their own cluster of voters they can count upon. There is a squabble among the Sephardim led by a Knesset Member who has dared challenge the leadership of SHAS''s revered leader, now over 90, still showing some signs of wisdom, but impossible to understand without translations and explanations of what he says by loyal interpreters.
Parties that aspired to gathering votes on their claims of new directions on social policy are suffering under the preoccupation with national defense. Most of them are joining in the easiest and most common themes of criticizing the end game chosen by Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman for Operation Pillar of Cloud.
Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman are united in explaining their accomplishments, and hoping that the flurry of frustration will lessen as January 22nd approaches. They are counting on Hamas to honor the cease fire and impose it on rivals, along with more portrayals of the extensive damage throughout Gaza. They will continue to threaten much greater mayhem if the cease fire does not hold, and claim credit for leading a campaign that was destructive despite the enemy''s claims of victory, with a minimum cost in Israeli lives, and to produce an extensive period of quiet for Israel''s south and central regions.
Politics being what it is, there is no certainty in any of this. A faction of Hamas or one of its rivals (most likely the Iran-linked Islmaic Jihad) can upset things with rockets or some other violence. Mahmoud Abbas might repair his image of impotence by gaining the recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations General Assembly. That will bring forth demands within in Israel to formally annex areas of the West Bank and other steps to punish the Palestinians of the West Bank. Already the American State Department has urged caution about such moves, so we will see once again how Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman work between the temptations of assertiveness and moderation.
For those convinced that Israel has lost the upper hand, its security personnel were rounding up the parliamentarians and other prominent activists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad throughout the West Bank early Friday, doing it in the major cities the Palestinians claim as their own. That level of aggression is not likely to stop even if Abbas wins UN recognition of statehood, then celebrates it with world class parades and other festivities.
Also in the news are shootings by the IDF of Gazans who approached the border with Israel, along with claims that those represent violations of the cease fire.
Even for a politics and policy maven like myself, the noise quickly tires. Fatigue was alrady a problem, given last week''s incessant and competitive commentary about the missiles and the activity of the IDF. The claims of primary candidates are slightly different, but not too much so insofar as most of them are saying what Netanyahu et al and the IDF should have done. Positions are clear, simple, and repetitive. It takes only a few minutes to realize what the debates are about, and to tire of the arguments. There is a good classical music station, thankfully free of political discussion. And the greater isolation of my own music collection, or the additional possibility of absolute quiet.