Politics: Betting on when the balloting begins

The date of the next elections will depend on the doings of Livni and Barak.

livni 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
livni 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni gave two high-profile speeches Wednesday to different audiences in very different locations. The first was to a crowd of lawyers, professors and other professionals at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the Movement for Quality Government. It was held at the air-conditioned Jerusalem International Convention Center, and every guest was treated to a scrumptious buffet lunch and a fancy goody bag full of knickknacks. The second speech was to Kadima activists at the party's Tel Aviv branch in a sweaty room on the third floor of a run-down office building. There was no air-conditioning, and only a few people who looked desperate enough were given a cup of water. There was no doubt which audience Livni looked more comfortable with. The MQG activists for good governance are Livni's home crowd. The Kadima activists are a means to an end in a game of politics that she has been forced reluctantly to play. Unfortunately for Livni, however, it is the Kadima activists who will decide on the next party leader - and possibly the next prime minister. The identity of that group will take shape over the next 10 days ahead of the June 30 membership-drive deadline that was set this week for voting in the Kadima primary - one in which she enjoys the tentative status as frontrunner. Kadima on Monday began a process of setting an early September date for the primary, a step that would not have happened had Livni not acted out of character by demanding it last month, following a similar request by Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak. Livni and Barak sounded remarkably similar this week in their warnings about how Israeli politics had stooped to a dirty game and in their criticism of the state of Kadima, which they both pointed out was formed to serve as an alternative to the perceived corruption of the Likud, but instead mimicked or even surpassed it. Barak said in closed conversations that he enjoyed watching Kadima ministers and MKs harm themselves by allowing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to remain their party leader and prime minister, showing voters that they lack the ethical backbone necessary to make a decision that should be obvious. THE BEHAVIOR of Livni and Barak will continue to be the main factor in determining how the current political crisis evolves, and when the next election will take place. Both politicians openly claim to put the good of the country ahead of their own personal benefit, and they also have in common that the conventional wisdom (CW) about what is good for them politically may have been miscalculated. The CW about Barak was that he wanted elections as late as possible, because he has been falling in the polls since his election as Labor leader a year ago last week. That's why even though Barak will instruct Labor MKs to vote for dissolving the Knesset in a meaningless preliminary vote next week, he will likely prevent the initiation of a general election in the vote that really counts next month. But because he is not an MK, Barak cannot become prime minister with the current Knesset, and there are no indications that his poll numbers will ever start going in the other direction. Labor under his helm hit a record low of 14 seats in a Shvakim Panorama poll broadcast on Israel Radio Thursday. The only thing that could give Barak a huge political boost would be a decisive victory in a major military operation, a move that was delayed if not ruled out by the Gaza cease-fire that began Thursday. The CW about Livni was that she wanted an election as soon as possible, because her poll numbers are so good and because she needs the election to take place at a time when the major issue could be political corruption. According to that logic, she needs the Knesset dissolution bill to pass in July before the Knesset's summer recess. But Livni's associates have been speaking more and more openly about the possibility of her forming a new government with the current Knesset if she is elected Kadima leader in September. The best scenario for her in that case would be for the vote to be delayed and for Olmert to remain prime minister until the primary, so she could replace him before the Knesset comes back into session in October. THERE ARE three scenarios about when the next general election can take place, and each of them is possible, depending on what Barak and Livni do. For the election to take place in November, Barak must quell the rebellion of backbenchers in his party who are against advancing the race. Livni must inspire more backbenchers in her party to rebel and vote in favor of an election, under the assumption that if she wins enough seats, they could return to the Knesset. Both of those conditions may very well not take place. The final voting on the legislation to dissolve the Knesset could also be delayed by an unenthusiastic Knesset committee chairman, or by opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's quietly taking steps to sabotage the bill submitted by his Likud rival, Silvan Shalom. Even though it would be legal to vote on the bill during the Knesset's summer recess, it is unlikely to happen. If the Knesset only votes to dissolve itself when it returns at the end of October, the general election will be held in February 2009. That election date, too, could be delayed if whoever is elected Kadima leader in September forms a new government. There are so many MKs who are afraid of elections that either Livni or Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz could be able to create a new coalition that could last until their officially set date in November 2010. If Livni wins the Kadima primary, she could get two years to prove herself as prime minister before she would have to face the public in a general election. But for that to happen, Livni will have to play politics well and be persuasive enough in sweat-filled rooms during her campaign to capture the Kadima crown.