Politics: The crystal ball

From elections to Iran and Syria and the state of the economy, the ‘Post’ makes its predictions for 2012.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu broad gesture 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu broad gesture 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Talmud says in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given over to fools and young children.
Yet ahead of 2011, those attempting to predict the year’s events could have made logical guesses that Gilad Schalit would come home in a prisoner exchange, that Steve Jobs would lose his battle with cancer and that Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi would be killed.
They probably could have predicted that by the end of the year Europe’s economy would flounder, the so-called Arab Spring would take a turn for the worse and the Palestinians would be no closer to statehood.
But you would have had to be a fool to guess that Israel would send aid to Japan, that the country that would suffer the worst terrorist attack of 2011 would be Norway or that the year’s most dominant news story in Israel would be socioeconomic protests at a time when the country has one of the most successful economies in the world.
The Middle East is an especially hard place to be a prognosticator. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming risk of looking extremely foolish throughout the year ahead, the following are 12 predictions for 2012 from the crystal ball of The Jerusalem Post.
Iran temporarily freezes nuclear program
Weeks ahead of the release of the International Atomic Energy Association report on the military nature of the Iranian nuclear program, senior Israeli officials were already hinting in closed conversations that they intended to use the report to pressure the world to intensify sanctions. Fearing that their pressure would not be sufficient, Israeli officials led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak also issued thinly veiled threats of a military strike.
Despite the bluff, a military strike on Iran in 2012 is very unlikely as Israel and the international community give time for tougher sanctions (and more sabotage) to work. It is also very unlikely that in the year ahead Iran will upgrade its nuclear program to the high enrichment needed for a nuclear bomb.
What can happen in Iran is that reformists could use the March 2 parliamentary election that they are boycotting to start new demonstrations. These protests could build on momentum from successful uprisings in the region and obtain support from the international community that realized it made a mistake by failing to aid protests in Iran in 2009.
If the demonstrations will be bolstered by intensified sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank and its oil exports, the combination could be enough to persuade Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by the end of the year that the way to stay in power and avoid a revolution would be to freeze his nuclear program – at least temporarily – in order to stop the sanctions and allow foreign investment.
This is very optimistic, but technically possible.
Assad falls, replaced by moderate Sunnis
Barak has been saying for months that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s days are numbered. Assad has lasted longer than a lot of observers expected him to when the civil war in his country broke out. Chances are that despite thousands more Syrians dying, the Western world will not seriously intervene and will instead wait for the rebels to oust Assad.
Both Barak and Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon have spoken optimistically about Iranian influence in Syria waning following Assad’s departure. They have predicted that although chaos would reign at first, relatively moderate, secular Sunnis, who are the majority in the country, will eventually gain control of Syria, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood. They will certainly be far from Zionist but they will be much better than Assad was or the Muslim Brotherhood would have been.
Palestinians hold election but not on time
The Palestinians have been delaying their elections for president and parliament since January 2009.
Since then, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has for all intents and purposes been a dictator, kept in power by the IDF that has prevented him from being overthrown in the West Bank and by an international community that still thinks he’s the Palestinians’ most moderate realistic alternative.
Ya’alon said mockingly that if the Palestinian elections are held in May, as is currently being proposed, he will grow hair on the palms of his hands.
But Abbas can’t hold onto power forever, especially since US President Barack Obama has basically gave up on him.
Look for the elections to finally take place in the fall. If Abbas keeps his repeated promise not to run, the key questions will be whom Fatah will put up as its candidate for president, whether Hamas will field a candidate and whether the victor allows Salam Fayyad to remain prime minister.
Obama wins re-election due to Republican mistakes
A bipartisan group of top American political analysts that met recently with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s closest associates predicted nearly unanimously that Obama would get reelected. Their reasoning had little to do with the president’s successes or failures and everything to do with the weakness of his competition.
Preelection debates, primaries and caucuses are supposed to separate the presidential wheat from the chaff. But instead they have been self-destructive for all of the Republican candidates and for the party itself.
Some economic indicators have found that the US economy has started improving and chances are Obama will do a lot of talking about Bin Laden to silence his critics. While young Americans have gone back to being disillusioned again and likely won’t come out to vote en masse like they did last time, Obama still knows how to galvanize grassroots support.
But again, it’s not about him. If the Republicans blow a winnable election, they have only themselves to blame for not finding a fitting candidate. Actually, they can blame themselves and the Jews – a majority of whom will still vote Obama, despite the president’s strained relationship with Israel.
Lindenstrauss serves as opposition head
Kadima head Tzipi Livni still holds the formal title of opposition leader. But since the only vote Kadima passed against the coalition’s will since the government was formed took place in a nearly empty Knesset at midnight, the closest thing Israel really has to an effective opposition leader is State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.
The comptroller is expected to release a harsh report on the handling of the Carmel fire by the end of January. Lindenstrauss will also publish reports on the Gaza flotilla incident and Netanyahu’s past travels abroad before his term ends in the summer.
If he holds Interior Minister Eli Yishai or Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz personally responsible for failures leading up to the fire, it will be a huge political setback for them; the media will certainly have a field day with them.
But their political future lies in the hands of their political patrons: Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for Yishai and Netanyahu for Steinitz. They could help their understudies survive a significant threat to their political careers or allow them to be used as scapegoats and hasten their downfall.
Israeli election initiated on budget
Livni and Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich have been saying in all their speeches lately that they expect 2012 to be an election year. But as long as none of the parties in Netanyahu’s coalition have an interest in initiating an election, there won’t be one in the year ahead.
While a general election will not take place in 2012, it is likely that one will be initiated at the end of the year and Netanyahu will not complete his term that is set to end October 22, 2013.
The government’s two-year budget ends in December.
Passing a new budget with an election ahead is always tough. Especially if he remains strong politically, Netanyahu could decide to begin the process of initiating a race at the end of the year, knowing that it would result in a March election, which would bring him past the impressive milestone of four years in office.
Other factors that could result in an early election include comptroller’s reports that come down especially hard on Netanyahu, chaos in Israel Beiteinu following an indictment of party leader Avigdor Lieberman, or the prime minister making a severe strategic blunder. If none of those things happens and a new budget passes smoothly, completing his term is still possible for Netanyahu.
Lieberman is indicted on corruption charges
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein decided eight months ago to indict Lieberman, pending a hearing, on charges of fraud, breach of trust, fraudulent acquisition, money-laundering and witness harassment.
The hearing is expected to take place in mid-January, after which Weinstein will likely make a decision about whether to indict him by April.
Lieberman would be under no obligation to resign from the cabinet or from the leadership of Israel Beiteinu if he is indicted but he has said on multiple occasions that he would leave both posts in order to concentrate on his trial. He would legally have to quit the Knesset.
Loyalists to Lieberman downplay the pending indictment, noting that there has been a legal cloud hovering over him since the mid-1990s and he has never gotten wet. Then again, if the prosecution has not found enough evidence to indict Lieberman after investigating him for that many years, they would look absolutely ridiculous, so chances are it will happen.
In the aftermath of a Lieberman indictment, the most likely scenario is that Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon will fill in for him at the ministry on an interim basis and Israel Beiteinu’s secretary-general, MK Faina Kirschenbaum, will temporarily run the party, but Lieberman will still be in charge behind the scenes.
A very severe indictment could result in Netanyahu advancing a general election to take advantage of the downfall of his competition for votes from his rightwing political base. But the more likely scenario is that Netanyahu’s government and coalition will carry on while Israel Beiteinu MKs become more loyal than ever, knowing that it is in their best interests for the election to be held as late as possible.
Mofaz wins and Livni retires
There are many reasons why Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has refused to set a date for her party’s leadership race despite primaries already being held in Labor, Likud and Meretz. She says she wants to concentrate on toppling Netanyahu, but it appears the main reason is that she is genuinely afraid of losing.
Political officials in Kadima who supported Livni in the last election have said that they have proof that MK Shaul Mofaz would have won the 2008 Kadima primary had it been conducted fairly. Results were tampered with, votes were swayed by an extremely incorrect exit poll broadcast the night of the vote and the closing time for polling stations was changed to ensure Livni’s victory.
Now Livni is especially vulnerable following socioeconomic protests that displayed her weakness on those issues. Mofaz can exploit his poor upbringing and contrast it with that of Livni, who is the daughter of an MK. Labor and apparently Meretz electing women leaders in Yacimovich and Zahava Gal-On also loses luster for Livni.
Following a Mofaz victory, Livni is likely to quit politics, which she said she couldn’t wait to do in a recent interview. Mofaz is fiercely criticizing the prime minister nowadays but chances are that he will be Netanyahu’s foreign minister in the next government.
Yair Lapid enters politics
The Post had been reporting about haredi (ultra- Orthodox) harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh for four months and nothing was being done to stop it. One report on Yair Lapid’s Channel 2 newsmagazine Ulpan Shishi brought Beit Shemesh to the forefront.
The Center-Left will not allow Lapid’s charisma and star power to remain on the sidelines in the next election. His genuine desire to fix the country’s wrongs about which he writes in Yediot Aharonot’s top column will cause him to take the political plunge, despite the risk involved in giving up two of the top jobs in Israeli journalism.
The most credible rumors suggest that Lapid will form an education- themed party in the next election and that he will contrast himself from his anti-haredi father, late justice minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, by putting a respected religious-Zionist rabbi like Shai Piron near the top of his list.
Deri completes comeback
Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri has plenty to say about the current tension between haredim and secular Israelis. He wants to be a bridge between the two communities, and the perfect way of doing that is to form a non-haredi, non- Sephardi party, as Deri has said he intends to do.
Deri would undoubtedly prefer to take back his job at the helm of Shas. But unless Lindenstrauss’s report on the Carmel fire hits Yishai very badly or 91-year-old Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef dies, that is unlikely to happen.
A Deri-led party could take away mandates from Shas and Likud, especially in development towns and inner cities. If the election is closer than expected, it could make Deri a kingmaker when it comes to forming the next government.
Stav and Shmueli run. No one wants Daphni
The young leaders of the summer’s socioeconomic protests, who fought bitterly behind the scenes, officially went their separate ways this week when Daphni Leef and Stav Shaffir formed separate organizations.
National Union of Israeli Students leader Itzik Shmueli had already broken off from the two of them by the end of the summer.
The three leaders differed over their approaches to getting their demands implemented and how closely to cooperate with the government.
Shmueli, who is the most pro-establishment of the three and is a member of Labor, is almost a lock to be a Knesset candidate for the party in the next election.
The bright and photogenic Shaffir will be sought after by several parties. Leef has denied political intentions repeatedly. It doesn’t matter if she is telling the truth.
After turning off a lot of people in and out of politics with her behavior and personality, no one is going to want her.
Israel continues to thrive
In December, Israel hit a 30-year record low of 5 percent unemployment, the Israeli company Anobit was bought by Apple for $400 million and Omri Casspi premiered as the starting small forward of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, a job held until a year ago by the great LeBron James.
All signs indicate that in 2012 Israel’s unemployment will rise and its economic growth will fall, the country still won’t produce a hi-tech powerhouse like Finland’s Nokia and the Caveliers will stink.
But there will be many reasons to be proud to be Israeli in the coming year. Quality of life in the country will continue to improve despite the many challenges ahead. And looking back at 2012, everyone will say that the year’s biggest headlines could not possibly have been predicted.