It's giant-killing season

The bigger they are, the harder they fall - and Israel's biggest political figures are falling hard.

yitzhak shamir 88 298 (photo credit: GPO)
yitzhak shamir 88 298
(photo credit: GPO)
There is nothing like the lineup for the yearly Herzliya Conference on "The Balance of Israel's National Security," which brings together statesmen, generals and academics, to gauge a senior politician's standing. In previous years, Shinui leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid was always a central speaker. He was scheduled to appear this year, but he cancelled at the last moment. "What could he have said?" one of the conference's organizers asked rhetorically, "Hello, I'm the leader of a party that doesn't exist anymore?" Ever since a rebel faction within Shinui gained control of the Knesset list, limelight addict Lapid hasn't shown his face outside his Tel Aviv apartment and has been refusing all requests for interviews. But Lapid wasn't the only one who was conspicuous in his absence: former prime ministers Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak have also practically disappeared from the public eye. Peres was whisked off quietly to discreet meetings abroad. Barak tried to muscle in on the Labor convention in Jerusalem on Sunday but left before the event even began after receiving a clear message from new chairman, Amir Peretz, that he wasn't going to reserve a special slot for him on the Knesset list or even promise him a ministerial post in the future government. Some of Peretz's advisers went as far as to talk about the "end of the Barak era in Israeli politics." EVERY ELECTION season heralds the end of various political careers. Lightweights who were lucky enough to gain a seat in the Knesset fail to be reelected and are forgotten and a few veterans resign voluntarily or are pushed out. But what we've been seeing in the past few weeks is a wholesale slaughter of political big beasts in their prime. Lapid, Barak, Peres, Limor Livnat, Avraham Poraz, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Matan Vilna'i... the list goes on. Senior MKs who only a few weeks ago were important ministers, even potential prime-ministerial candidates, have been humiliated - kicked out by their parties or relegated to the nether regions of the Knesset list. And this is happening more than two months before the elections. If the current polls hold out, there will be a second round of blood-letting after election day on March 28. The knives are already out in the Likud, Labor and Meretz. If Binyamin Netanyahu, Peretz and Yossi Beilin fail to deliver their parties from electoral disaster, their chances of survival seem extremely slim; they almost definitely will never be allowed to run for prime minister again. Almost the entire leadership of the three largest parties in the outgoing Knesset has been changed over the past two months. Some figures found their way to the new Kadima megalith. The rest are still shell-shocked by the dramatic change in their fortunes. Each of the parties was hit by its own earthquake: Labor by the dramatic and unexpected takeover by Amir Peretz; the Likud, split when Ariel Sharon and his followers departed to set up Kadima; and Shinui, which exploded to smithereens when the rebel faction deposed Number 2 Poraz and ended the duopoly that had kept the secular lawyers' party together. Labor and the Likud, as long-standing parties serving stable constituencies, will survive a downfall at the polls. But the sudden elimination of Shinui from the political landscape is a complete reversal of fortunes. Three years ago, Lapid and Poraz found themselves leading the third-largest party in the Knesset, with 15 MKs, most of them anonymous until then. They became Sharon's main partner in government, with the prestigious Justice, Interior and Infrastructure portfolios. They had succeeded in tapping into Israel's growing middle-class and in transforming from what in 1999 was a splinter party on the brink of extinction to a significant force, here to stay. The formation of Kadima, the new central party, headed by Sharon at the height of his popularity, was bound to dramatically reduce their size. But Lapid was quick to proclaim after Sharon's second stroke that, with the departure of the national father figure, "the air would go out of the Kadima balloon" and the middle-class voters would return to Shinui. He wasn't reckoning with sinister forces closer to home. "They made two mistakes," one of the MKs who are still loyal to Lapid and Poraz now admits. "They concentrated all the power in their own hands and closed themselves to criticism." The rebels, headed by Tel Aviv City Council member Ron Loewental, didn't mean to depose Lapid. They just wanted to make a point, that the two leaders couldn't continue running things on their own. "They had a point," says the MK. "Poraz ran the party like a corner grocery store, he barely released funds for the local party branches. That's why we still have ten million shekels in the till." But Lapid, who had sworn loyalty to party veteran Poraz, wasn't prepared to countenance such a blatant challenge. He isn't going to lead a party where his view isn't the only one that counts, and he is just postponing the announcement of his retirement so his remaining loyalists can find themselves an alternative party to run with. LAPID ISN'T the only politician to turn into a victim of their own hubris. Limor Livnat is an especially poignant example. For five years, as education minister, she pushed forward the revolutionary Dovrat Reform that would have totally reformed the school system. She was so confident in her powers and the continuing support of Sharon and Netanyahu that she arrogantly took on the powerful teachers unions, intending to ram down their throats the reform that would drastically reduce their powers. In interviews with journalists she made no efforts to hide her ambitions to run for prime minister "at due time." Her preferred post in the next government was defense minister, as the first woman to head the military establishment and preparation for the top job. But the last year has turned out to be an annus horribilis for her. Livnat felt confident enough to take on everyone. She made her displeasure at the disengagement plan clear, despite not joining Netanyahu in resigning from the cabinet on the eve of the pullback. But at the dramatic Likud Central Committee meeting after the pullback, where a motion was tabled by Sharon's opponents to bring forward the leadership primaries, Livnat made a last-minute defection to the Netanyahu camp, accusing Sharon of "turning his back on the Likud." She had misread the map. Sharon won the vote by a whisker, and their relations were irrevocably ruined. Livnat didn't learn her lesson - four weeks ago, when the newly victorious Likud chairman Netanyahu demanded that the four remaining Likud ministers in Sharon's government resign their posts, she was adamant in opposing him, and was eventually forced to back down. Meanwhile, Livnat's reforms were losing steam, only a handful of local councils agreed to implement part of the Dovrat recommendations and now it's clear that, if the revolution ever comes to pass, it will be under a different education minister. After making so many enemies, only Livnat was surprised last week when the Likud Central Committee members pushed her down to the humiliating Number 11 in the internal elections. She actually has the 10th spot in the final list, thanks to the rules that there has to be at least one woman in the top 10 - but she never needed reverse discrimination to reach so high in the past. Now all Livnat has to look forward to in the next Knesset term is a bleak existence on the back benches, probably as a member of the opposition, while her once junior female Likud rival, Tzipi Livni, has just been rewarded for her unswerving loyalty to Sharon with the Foreign Ministry. ARROGANCE ALSO brought about the downfall of Shimon Peres three months ago. He has been an MK since 1959 - before three-quarters of the population were even born - and this time, the 82-year old leader was confident, he was going to win. His other challengers for the Labor leadership, Ehud Barak and Matan Vilna'i, pulled out of the race when polls showed that Peres's lead was unassailable. The last person Peres was worried about was then-Histadrut leader Peretz. Peres himself had engineered Peretz's return to the party fold last year, with a view to creating an alliance that would head off the threat of their common enemy Barak retaking the party. Peres was so sure of his victory that he didn't seriously set up a headquarters campaign, even when reports began coming in of the thousands of new party members that Peretz was bringing in, using his Histadrut-based organization. Once again, Peres was lulled to sleep by the polls that predicted a clear victory. Who could have foreseen that a Moroccan firebrand from Sderot could ever be voted in as leader of the most Ashkenazi of Israeli parties? No stranger to defeat at the ballot box, this proved one downfall too many for Peres, and 65 years of party membership came to an end with a defection to his newfound ally's party, Kadima. But the saga of humiliation didn't end there. Sharon played around with Peres and only reluctantly agreed to place him on his Knesset list. Following the stroke, Kadima spin doctors briefed reporters that Peres was trying to blackmail caretaker prime minister Ehud Olmert into promising him a senior post in the next government in return for not going back to Labor. In the end he was placated with the second spot on the Kadima post, but he will not get one of the top cabinet jobs. YESTERDAY'S SENIOR ministers, power breakers and leadership candidates in Labor and Likud have all been pushed down the Knesset lists and are suddenly contemplating the eclipse of their political ambitions. Fractious party memberships and the vengeful Netanyahu and Peretz have replaced them with young and loyal operatives. But this isn't merely a changing of the guard or a generational shift. The main factor contributing to the obliteration of so many promising political careers is that there seems to be only one show going on now in town. Sharon's dramatic decision to leave the Likud and pursue a new centrist policy with Kadima wasn't the first time that a new center party tried to break the eternal right-left, Labor-Likud balance of power. We've had a whole series of center parties over the past three decades. Dash, Tsomet, The Third Way, The Center Party and Shinui all enjoyed initial success in the polls; some even went on to become significant Knesset factions for a term or two. All are now history, however. Kadima is the first center party that has come anyway close to becoming the party of government. Its creation and buoyancy in the polls was of course due to Sharon's personality and popularity. But three weeks after what everyone now admits was his final departure, the party under the leadership of the formerly unpopular Olmert is still ahead in the polls by a huge margin - all this despite the fact that Kadima has yet to reveal its platform or Knesset list. Likud and Labor have already elected their leaders and candidates but are still faltering in their efforts to gather steam and are pale reminders of their former selves. There are three reasons for Kadima's ongoing success. Rivals are calling it a "party of refugees," with a large degree of justification. Dalya Itzik and Haim Ramon had little chance of recapturing the high spots of the Labor list, while Gideon Ezra, Avraham Hirshson, Ronny Bar-On and even Olmert himself were in for a tough battle for reelection in Likud. But Kadima still has what none of the other center parties, formed by dreamers and political neophytes ever had: a large cadre of disciplined and highly experienced operators. Even if few of them were ever widely popular, their presence in one party inspires confidence in a public yearning for Sharon's firm leadership. The second contributing factor is the Israeli media. After treating Sharon for many years as a political pariah, most Israeli journalists swore allegiance to his disengagement plan and carried on supporting his yet-unstated future plans. Netanyahu has been disqualified by most of the mainstream press from ever returning to the Prime Minister's Office, and Peretz is seen as a dangerous socialist threatening to ruin the complacent middle class's existence. Olmert has been almost effortlessly anointed as Sharon's successor, and he can expect a media umbrella for the next two months. But the main reason for Kadima's unprecedented success is the Israeli public. After the ruin of the Oslo dream and the departure of most Israelis including those on the right, from ambitions to hold on to the entire Land of Israel, there has never been a period like this when so many are prepared to break decades-long voting patterns and embrace a party that includes senior figures from both sides of the political divide. On the one hand, Likud and Labor are being portrayed as far-right and far-left, so for those who still have qualms about leaving the party they voted for forever, there are reassuring defectors from either side like Peres and former Likud "prince" Tzahi Hanegbi. If they left their political homes, many feel, anyone can.