Election Watch

When the Cannons Roar With little more than a month to go, the Israeli election could be decided by the outcome of the Gaza War that erupted on December 26. Although it is absurd to suggest that the offensive was launched for political reasons, the war has given Defense Minister Ehud Barak a chance to display the military acumen and leadership qualities that could lift his Labor Party out of the doldrums. With Barak clearly the man in charge, a successful military operation will likely bring Labor even more than its campaign target of 15 seats. A poll conducted by the Maagar Mochot survey company, for Channel Ten TV on the second day of the war had Labor's share of the vote up to 16 seats from just 11 seats six days earlier. More significantly, it also showed the Kadima-led center-left bloc ahead of the Likud-led right-wing-religious bloc for the first time in the campaign, by 61 seats to 59. That would be just enough to make Kadima leader Tzipi Livni prime minister. On the other hand, failure or mixed fortunes on the battlefield or in the diplomatic aftermath would considerably boost Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu's chances of victory on February 10. This suggests another possible scenario: As a result of the war, Barak and Netanyahu achieve a joint goal they have often discussed - Barak, with at least 15 Labor seats, becomes the senior coalition partner and defense minister in a government led by Netanyahu. Barak proposed something along those lines last September. The idea then was to block Livni by setting up a Likud-Labor government in the immediate aftermath of Ehud Olmert's resignation as prime minister. Netanyahu told Barak to wait until after the next general election. The political aim of a new post-election Likud-Labor pact would be to squeeze Kadima, the biggest threat to both parties, by keeping it out of government. Most Laborites, however, would prefer a coalition with Kadima, which is much closer to them ideologically. But that is contingent on the Kadima-led center-left bloc defeating the Likud-led right-wing-religious bloc, and nearly all the prewar polls had the right-wingers ahead. The one exception was Maariv-Teleseker, published a day before the fighting erupted, which had the blocs tied at 60-60, and Kadima with 30, for the first time ahead of the Likud with 29, and Labor with 11. Polls in Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth also showed Kadima picking up momentum, but still trailing Likud by about four seats, with the blocs of 65-55 and 63-57 clearly in favor of the right. A Sordid Deal Netanyahu may have blotted his copybook, though, with a sordid deal with Effie Eitam's small right-wing Achi Party. Netanyahu initially blocked Eitam's attempt to run for a place on the Likud list, on the grounds that his hawkish views were not in line with those of the Likud. But then he agreed to incorporate Achi members on the slate (in the unrealistic 39th and 45th slots) in return for its 12 million-shekel ($3 million) state campaign allocation. A few days before, the cash-strapped Netanyahu cut a similar deal with the once powerful but now almost defunct Tzomet party, but that fell through at the last minute. When he won the 1996 election, Netanyahu made similar pre-election pacts with Tzomet and Gesher. Then it was for wider political support. This time it is for money. Lost in the List Before the war, Livni seemed to be picking up an impressive campaign rhythm, presenting a more confident and relaxed leadership persona. But the momentum she achieved was not helped by the party's pallid list, after some of its more conscientious Knesset members and promising newcomers failed to make the grade. The party's two professors in the Knesset, Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael and Menachem Ben-Sasson, were pushed well down the slate, to the borderline 31st and unrealistic 35th spots. Announcing that he was quitting politics altogether, Ben-Yisrael complained that the wheeling and dealing that characterizes Israeli primaries makes it virtually impossible for good new people to break into the system. This, he says, is one of the main reasons for a growing lack of confidence in politics, which "is more dangerous for Israel than the Iranian bomb." Also among those who tried but failed to secure safe spots on the Kadima list were: Doron Avital, a former commander of an elite commando unit who holds a doctorate in philosophy; businesswoman, actress and TV personality Galia Albin; Oded Alyagon, a former magistrate's court judge; and Uri Ne'eman, former head of research in the Mossad intelligence agency. From Pen to Pol One of the features of this election is the number of high-profile journalists who have been able to break into politics. Precisely because they are well-known nationwide, the journalists are suited to the primary system and sought after by leaders seeking to spice up their party slates. Ex-journalists with good chances of making it into the Knesset are Daniel Ben-Simon (Labor), Nahman Shai (Kadima), Uri Orbach (HaBayit HaYehudi), Nitzan Horwitz (Meretz), Gidon Reicher (Pensioners), Ariella Ringel-Hoffman (Greens), Orli Levy and Anastasia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu). The last three are women, and the next Knesset is likely to break the record of 18 set in 2003 for the number of female lawmakers. Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu have 4 women in their first ten; Meretz has 3, Labor 2 and Likud 1. For the first time there is also a woman in a realistic spot on one of the Arab lists, Hanan Zuabi, a fiery 39-year-old, who is third on the strongly nationalist Balad slate. A scion of a wealthy Nazareth family, for the past five years she has been running an independent union for journalists working in Arabic. Arab Lists Balad is in deep trouble. It is running without its charismatic founder, Christian intellectual Azmi Bishara, who fled the country in April 2007, after being investigated on suspicion of collaboration with Hizballah during the 2006 Lebanon War. As a result, Balad could have trouble passing the 2.5 percent minimum threshold for Knesset representation. The new leader, Jamal Zachalka, had hoped to bolster the party's prospects through an electoral pact with the Islamists. But they decided to run instead with the more powerful Ra'am-Ta'al movement led by Ahmad Tibi. • Article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.