Analysis: Lieberman the big winner in the gamblers' celebration

Olmert's arguably failed gamble pales in comparison with the gamble made by his archrival Netanyahu.

ehud olmert 88 (photo credit: )
ehud olmert 88
(photo credit: )
The die has been cast. As if to follow, one last time, Ariel Sharon's lead into the unknown, mainstream Israel abandoned its original political brainchild on Tuesday and crowned its latest as leader of the Jewish state. Back when Sharon established it, Kadima seemed like the party of the retreat that was. Since then it has become the party of the retreats that will come, and this is what the public backed. Whether the choice can be described as a gamble is debatable. If anything, Kadima's voters are the same ones who previously voted for the masterminds of the Lebanon War, the settlement drive and the Oslo Accords. For them, voting Kadima was not a gamble, but the long-overdue admission into a rehab. And yet this election emerged last night as a gamblers' celebration. One gambler was Olmert himself, whose unveiling of an ambitious West Bank pullback plan shortly before the election, even after Hamas's rise to power, evidently deterred some voters, and apparently contributed to his loss of up to 25 percent of his original following. Yet Olmert's arguably failed gamble pales in comparison with his arch rival Binyamin Netanyahu's. The former prime minister's resignation from Sharon's cabinet last spring was too little for right-wingers, and too much for the centrists whose appreciation he had so painstakingly won as finance minister. Now it seems Netanyahu's accomplishments at the Treasury will far outlast his own political career, which may well have arrived at its improbable, premature and tragic end. Another massively failed gamble has been Labor's. The party's socialist bravado apparently attracted hardly one voter who had not already voted in '03 for Amram Mitzna. Evidently, the effort to focus on economics while avoiding some admission of responsibility for the Oslo Accords' failed aftermath, has left the mainstream electorate alienated. At the same time, the Gil Pensioners' Party's sensational feat constitutes a stinging vote of no confidence in Labor by what should have been its most natural constituency under any circumstances, but even more so in an election that was dominated by social issues and came on the heels of reforms that victimized the elderly. A third failed gamble was made by the National Religious Party, whose alignment with the National Union did not return the kinds of dividends for which it had hoped, and at only further stigmatized it as a one-dimensional movement whose obsession with Greater Israel has made it lose touch with the Israeli mainstream. Surely, where there is gambling there are not just losers, but also winners, and the biggest among those is Avigdor Lieberman. Just what his accomplishment represents, and what he will do with it, remains unclear. Socially, it may have been a wake-up call for those of us who thought that the so-called Russian electorate had been so efficiently absorbed that it would no longer follow an ethnic leader. Yet the more significant statement Lieberman's voters appear to have made is ideological. Economically, they voted for a man whose backing of Netanyahu's Thatcherism has been as enthusiastic as Tommy Lapid's. And in terms of the conflict, theirs has been a vote for territorial exchange, an idea that might draw analogies between Lieberman and France's Le Pen, but still abandons the ideological Right's historic refusal to compromise any parts of the Promised Land, under any terms. As such, Lieberman's voters appear to represent the original, schizophrenic Likud's conservative half, the part that parted with the populists who ended up in Shas. In the longer term, that means Lieberman may be able to establish what Israeli politics never had: a conservative party. Getting back to the present, the Israeli voter has dealt the Greater Israel idea the same death blow it dealt in '03 to the land-for-peace idea. At the same time, even while handing Netanyahu a devastating personal setback, the public avoided empowering his economic arch rivals. The result is a political scene that will be dominated by Kadima in general and Ehud Olmert in particular, and by the new ruling party's quest to reconcile military resolve with diplomatic flexibility, and free enterprise with social compassion. Just as Sharon had planned.