Whose vote is it, anyway?

In Israeli politics, expect the unexpected.

elections voting cards 248.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
elections voting cards 248.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
I once wrote an article which started something like this: "It doesn't matter who you voted for; the person you put in the Knesset is probably a 21-year-old law student...." The feature was about the life and (hard) work of the average parliamentary aide. Many years and several elections later, some of those parliamentary aides are themselves now politicians. They sprang to mind last week when I realized that it didn't matter who Israelis voted for, the decision of who will be the next prime minister ultimately lies in the hands of two - very different - people: President Shimon Peres and Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman. It's not something I would have predicted as a parliamentary reporter all those years ago. I covered the Knesset from an enviable position - a seat for which I did not have to compete - during a period that turned out to be particularly turbulent, from mid-1995 to October 1999: just before the stormy passage of Oslo II to just after the shaky Sharm e-Sheikh Accords. The memory that still haunts us above all is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Those three shots should serve as a warning. No matter what happens and who ultimately is appointed to form the coalition, the country should remain united behind the fact that, as Peres so often puts it, "the ballot is better than the bullet." After Rabin's murder, I watched Peres the super-dove lose the elections to Binyamin Netanyahu. Later I saw Netanyahu lose to Ehud Barak. I watched Lieberman, Netanyahu's right-hand man - with the emphasis on the right - before he officially joined the political fray. I also covered Tzipi Livni's savvy campaign to be elected to the Knesset, and made a mental note to watch her progress. Fortunately, I didn't try to publicly predict who would go far - or in what direction. A decade ago, who could have predicted that Peres would be accused of "war crimes" by a prime minister of Turkey, of all countries; that Ariel Sharon would have ceded Gaza to the Palestinians, uprooting Jewish communities; that Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, a staunch Likudnik, would favor giving up parts of the capital, the Golan Heights and heaven knows what else as prime minister for a party named Kadima; or that Livni, daughter of a proud Revisionist family, would be fighting to replace him in possibly the most difficult job in the world? (There are those, however, who would claim there were signs that Olmert would end up facing corruption charges and that Lieberman would similarly be forever struggling to clear his name.) A JERUSALEM taxi driver took me to task on Election Day for hailing a cab without checking the driver was Jewish. Taxi driver-style, he subjected me to a long political diatribe about Israeli Arabs and the vote, halting to take a breath - or maybe he was choking - when my seven-year-old pointed out that "once upon a time blacks in America couldn't even sit next to whites on the same bus" (call it the Obama effect). There was nothing unusual in the driver's speech. Sadly, you can find people like him all over the world, certain the "other" is taking their jobs and threatening "their" womenfolk. What was noteworthy, however, was his answer when I asked whether he had voted yet. "Me? I'm not voting," he all but exploded with words I hope my kid, however precocious, does not understand. "They're all corrupt." The February 10 elections were among the most significant ever in determining the country's future, yet they did not inspire. Perhaps it was their proximity to Operation Cast Lead, a war which did not succeed in halting missile attacks in the South (just contrast the voting pattern in Ashkelon and Tel Aviv). Maybe it was because two of the three candidates for PM - Netanyahu and Barak - had already been there before. It might have been the ignominious way that Olmert was forced to go home. Or, it might have been the lack of enthusiasm that Livni inspired. Everybody knew what they were voting against. It was more difficult to determine what we were voting "for." Even in her victory speech - which will no doubt haunt her in any future elections - Livni failed to say what she would do as prime minister. It was, as Meretz No. 2 Ilan Gilon put it, "a bat mitzva speech": thanks to this one, thanks to that one. No sign that there is a global economic crisis, a nearly-nuclear Iran, and terrorist missiles landing ever closer to the center of the country. Having run on an unclear platform in a party in which opportunism seems to have been the strongest ideology, Livni still could not say what she stood - nay, ran - for. She was, understandably, genuinely moved by her achievement. And no one can take that achievement from her: She inherited a party way down in the opinion polls and put it back on the political map. But she showed no sign of recognizing that there is a real world out there. The speech was an echo of her "katan alai" ("that's nothing for me") that turned into a catchphrase. The Israeli public will be able to smile once again when we form the government, Livni declared in the somewhat premature celebratory speech. Well, much of the Israeli public is smiling just watching her try - not the same part of the public who voted for her. Livni, who won so much, arguably has the most to lose. Should she succeed in putting together a coalition and persuading President Peres of its viability, she should not only take the position Netanyahu so wants. She should inherit his title - "The Magician." It will be a neat trick. When Netanyahu lost to Barak in 1999, he wisely handed over to Sharon, took a break, and allowed the party to rebuild itself from the opposition benches. Livni does not have that luxury. Or more to the point, her party can't afford it. While Livni is young enough and personable enough to sit it out, Kadima does not have a wide enough base of support to survive the political wilderness where the opposition dwells. The main lesson of the elections is that a reform of the system is necessary. Not that we haven't tried that before. Remember Barak versus Bibi? Had there been direct elections of the prime minister last week, it is almost certain that Netanyahu - as head of the largest bloc - would have beaten Livni with a majority of which Peres would be envious. That's the Peres who following the 1996 elections was convinced he had won and had a rude awakening when he discovered that Netanyahu had succeeded where it really counts: in the ballot box and not the exit polls. Maybe from his exalted position today he could provide Livni with some inspiration and comfort even if he can't appoint her to head the next government. Peres, Lieberman and Netanyahu can all assure Livni of one thing: In Israeli politics, anything is possible.