Election Watch

Article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Opponents of Postponement As the fighting in Gaza intensified, politicians not expected to do too well in the February 10 election started talking about postponing it. Rafi Eitan, leader of the Pensioners' Party, which won seven seats in the last Knesset but might not get any this time, argued that, with soldiers at war and hundreds of thousands of civilians under rocket threat, this was no time to hold an election. But Eitan quickly ran into stiff, almost wall-to-wall, opposition. Academics, like Hebrew University political scientist Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, were appalled, arguing that on-schedule elections are the essence of democracy, and any postponement would create a dangerous precedent. The only time elections have been postponed in Israel was in 1973, because of the traumatic Yom Kippur War, in which Israel lost over 2,600 soldiers. The 1973 elections had been set for October 31, just five days after the war ended, and were deferred for two months, until December 31. Opponents of postponement of the February voting point out that not only is the current Gaza war far less widespread, but it will almost certainly be over long before February 10. In the Knesset, Gidon Sa'ar of the Likud and Labor's Shelly Yacimovich moved together to nip the Eitan initiative in the bud. They approached the House's legal adviser Nurit Elstein, who ruled that elections can be postponed only if both of two conditions pertain: • At least 80 of the 120 Knesset members vote for the postponement; • Extraordinary circumstances exist, which prevent holding the election as scheduled. Moreover, the election cannot be postponed indefinitely, and must be held at the earliest opportunity after the extraordinary circumstances cease to exist. At one point, Knesset Speaker Dahlia Itzik seemed to indicate that she might be ready to move for a postponement. But now she says she would only consider doing so if the war escalates dramatically, and her strong preference is for elections as scheduled. Wobbling on the Threshold Assuming the elections do go ahead as scheduled, they could paradoxically be decided by parties on both the left and the right, which don't even make it into the Knesset. By law, a party requires at least 2 percent of the national vote (in this election an estimated 70,000 votes), for Knesset representation. There are at least 10 left or right-tending parties that might struggle to pass the minimum threshold. Of the 10, seven would likely support a center-left candidate for prime minister: Rafi Eitan's Pensioners, former Labor Knesset member Ephraim Sneh's Strong Israel, the nationalistic Arab Balad party led by Jamal Zahalka, and four "green" parties competing with each other (the Green Movement-Meimad, led by Labor-Meimad Knesset Member Rabbi Michael Melchior, Green Leaf Graduates and Holocaust Survivors led by Ohad Shem-Tov, Green Leaf led by Orthodox stand-up comic Gil Kopatsh and Peer Visner's Greens for a Green Israel). The three on the right are the Jewish Home-New National Religious Party led by Rabbi-Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz; the National Union, led by Yaakov Katz, former head of the defunct pirate right-wing radio Arutz 7; and Tzomet led by Moshe Green. If, say, the Pensioners don't make it, there would be two or three Knesset members less than expected in the left-wing block, whereas if they, or one of the green parties gets through, there could be two or three more. Either development could be enough to swing the election. The same is true on the right: If either the Jewish Home or the National Union, or both, fail to pass the threshold, there could be as many as six seats fewer in the right-wing block. Failure of small right-wing parties to pass the threshold in 1992 handed victory to Labor's Yitzhak Rabin, even though overall the right won more votes than the left. The problem for the right though was that Hatechiya and two other smaller right-wing parties failed to pass the threshold. Their votes didn't count, and Rabin squeaked through with a block of 61 seats to the right's 59. Wartime Electioneering During the war, all the main parties agreed to suspend their election campaigns. But that did not stop them from blatant electioneering. Declaring that now was a time for national unity, the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu volunteered to explain Israel's case on dozens of foreign TV networks. But the opposition leader, who hopes to take over as prime minister after the February election, made sure to invite Israel's Channel 2 TV to document his PR blitz. The result was a spin doctor's dream: The candidate getting free prime time exposure, selflessly devoting himself to the national cause. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader, got her knuckles wrapped for holding a parlor meeting during the war. But that was small change compared to the wartime backbiting between her and Labor leader Ehud Barak, the defense minister. Her camp leaked unflattering accounts of his hesitancy on key policy decisions; his camp accused her of failure to prevent a U.N. Security Council decision calling for a cease-fire before Israel had achieved its war aims. The Meretz Honors List The larger, more established parties all tried to squeeze a little extra electoral appeal through the people they chose for the last honorary spots on their slates. And, at least here, the dovish Meretz has outdone the others. Likud closed its list with party stalwarts (former foreign minister David Levy and Yechiel Kadishai, Menachem Begin's loyal aide). Labor did the same with former president Yitzhak Navon and educator Aryeh Lova Eliav. Kadima, which has only been around since 2005, in lieu of old-time national politicians honored Haifa mayor Yona Yahav and former Rehovot mayor Yehezkel Har-Melech. But Meretz decorated its next to last places with an array of leading cultural glitterati, including novelists Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Yehoshua Kenaz; filmmaker Judd Neeman, artist Yair Garbuz and actor-director Oded Kotler. • Article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.