Column: Window on Israel

All Israel's major parties and most of the not-so major ones are in deep crisis.

window88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem A friendly correspondent from Al-Jazeera called this morning, concerned about the vote received by Moshe Feiglin in yesterday's Likud primary to select a party leader. Feiglin received 12 percent of the vote in a primary marked by a low turnout of 45% of those eligible to participate. And insofar as his supporters are likely to have been more enthusiastic than others, his turnout was probably closer to its maximum than those of other candidates. As expected, Binyamin Netanyahu won the primary with 44% of the vote. Feiglin is somewhere to the right of almost every other politician, selling Jewish nationalism and territorial ownership, spiced with religious symbols. The correspondent from Al-Jazeera is a decent reporter who calls me occasionally from Hebron, and quotes me accurately in what he writes on the organization's Web site. Not surprisingly, he is concerned with the specter of right-wing, territory obsessed Jews taking over Israel and making life even more hopeless for the Palestinians. He asked about the prospect of an alliance between a Netanyahu-led Likud with a heavy dose of Feiglinism, plus other right wing and religious parties. I think he can relax. The collection of parties that can now be termed religious and nationalist, from Likud rightward, include enough sizable egos among their political and religious leaders, as well as doctrinal nuances, to get in the way of anything more than occasional cooperation. The ultra-Orthodox leadership is far less interested in issues of territory than the non-ultra-Orthodox. The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas has signed on to a posture of generous welfare programs, while Netanyahu himself is the leader of the anti-welfare libertarian sect of Israel. This is not to say that our political future is clear. The uncertainty is not as unsettling as in the chaotic flirting with civil war of our Palestinian neighbors. However, all Israel's major parties and most of the not-so major ones are in deep crisis. Labor has moved to the left with the selection of Amir Peretz as its leader. Along with Meretz-Yahad or whatever it is calling itself these days (names are also in flux), the largely Jewish left cluster cannot decide about which of the darling causes is most important: social welfare, environment, peace with the Palestinians, the rights of gays and lesbians, other women's issues, or whatever. Meanwhile, it has forgotten that most of the votes are in the center. If some of you out there think this syndrome looks like that affecting the Democratic Party in the United States, you understand the issue. Salvation for the left is not likely to come from the Arab parties. Some are looking toward the Ariel Sharon-Shimon Peres partnership, while others remain mired in extreme nationalism, their own religiosity, and electoral bases more concerned with localities and extended families than with any more general issues. Until the day before yesterday, Ariel Sharon's new party, Kadima (Forward) owned the center. Then he had what his physicians are calling a mild stroke, which occurred at the start of television news' prime time. In the saturation of coverage which put everything else aside, we have heard that he lost consciousness and was confused, and that he did not lose consciousness and suffered only a temporary blurring of his speech. The party line is a very mild stroke, which will enable him to leave the hospital today (after a very restful night). Handlers say that he will return to full service after a few days rest, and will open the weekly government meeting on Sunday. Everyone admits that he should lose weight. We can only hope that the publicly-available news is--and will be--more accurate than in the cases of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Menachem Begin. All of them ended their tenures pretty much out of it, along with bland announcements about minor ailments. The not-so-friendly Ha'aretz put a headline on page 2 yesterday morning that a quarter of stroke victims die within a year after an episode. Initial polls show Sharon's party increasing its proportion of the votes, but that may be sympathy. We will have to wait and see what happens over the next three months until the actual voting. Other polls show that Sharon's party without Sharon is not worth much. We may see an effort of ranking colleagues to put in place some institutions for selecting Knesset candidates and other functionaries that do not rely so much on the great leader's personal involvement. Assuming we get through the election and the assembling of a coalition government, what happens next? Both Labor and Likud have a great deal of shuffling to get to where they used to be: competing for the broad center of the electorate. So far no one expects Sharon's Kadima to become a new dominant party. It is held together by Sharon's personal appeal among the electorate, and an attachment to pragmatism or opportunism that has marked his style in dealing with the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers. "We can do it better" is the unspoken slogan. Who knows how that will sell when reality changes and the "it" differs from the relatively simple issue of the last five years?
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