As Israelis go to the polls tomorrow, observers around the world will be watching the results eagerly. They will largely ask the same question: "How will the next Prime Minister affect the peace process?" While this issue is paramount in the minds of the international community, Israelis, no less than Americans, often vote based on domestic concerns.
Israel's three major parties, Labor, Kadima, and Likud, are joined in this election by Avigdor Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, projected to finish third if elections were held today. Before discussing which candidate will afford the best chances for a reduction of hostilities in the region, the other major issues that Israelis will be, or should be, voting on must be explored.
The structure of Israel's political system limits the ability of a new Prime Minister to dictate policy. Unlike America's presidential system, where a new President means four years of an entirely new administration, Israel's outdated parliamentary system keeps the same politicians in power, rotating them between jobs and in and out of the ruling coalition. George Bush will never again be president, but Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu have both made their political comebacks, and Barak might well retain his position as Defense Minister despite his party's streak of election losses.
There are many domestic concerns that threaten Israel as much as, if not more than, foreign enemies. Corruption has become commonplace among elected officials, and Israelis have subsequently lost faith in their leaders. The major candidates have all made honesty and fighting corruption central components of their platforms, and Israelis will reward the candidate who they believe can restore integrity to Israeli political culture.
There is a crucial issue threatening Israel's future that has not resounded in Israeli political discourse. Israel is facing what Prof. Michael Oren calls a "collapse of sovereignty". Israel does not extend its own laws to large swaths of Israelis, because of fear of the consequences and the political power of some of those sectors of society. The two most problematic populations are the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Israeli Arab sectors, which mirror each other in many ways. Neither population sends its youth to fight for the country or to perform national service, even in their own communities. Israel gives both communities stipends for each child born, a result of a policy intended to replenish the Jewish people after the millions lost in the Holocaust. It is immensely profitable for Haredim and Israeli Arabs to have huge families, supported by the tax money of other Israelis. The Haredim are problematic in other ways. Their education system does not prepare their children for productive lives in Israeli society.
Equipped with barely any math, science, or social studies, Haredi youth are ready to do two things- learn in yeshivas and raise large families, both funded by the country whose flag they do not salute and whose army they are unwilling to join. This untenable situation is made possible by Israel's coalition system, which gives them enough political power to hold coalitions hostage until they secure money for their schools and families while refusing to contribute to the larger Israeli society. Unless the next Prime Minister decides that Haredi Jewish and Arab Muslim citizens of Israel must respect the national symbols and serve the country through military or national service, Israeli rule of law will continue to erode until the contributing sectors of Israeli society become unable or unwilling to support those who take advantage of the country.
Another result of the political strength of religious parties is the power of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Israelis, largely secular but increasingly respectful of tradition, resent the power religious authorities in Israel have over marriage, burial, and conversion. A Prime Minister who can build a secular coalition could marginalize the Haredi parties and extend Israel's laws into all sectors of society.
As always, Israel's situation vis-a-vis its neighbors will play a significant role in the outcome of the elections. 'Peace' in the region today refers to three levels of conflict management. The first is preventing a major war, most likely with Syria or Iran. The second is preventing a mid-level conflict, such as the recent wars with Hizbullah and Hamas. The third is a new peace process with Syria or the Palestinians, resulting in a peace agreement and a structured end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, Iran has a veto over all three of these levels. If it continues to develop its nuclear weapons program, it is on a collision course with Israel or the United States. If it decides to deflect attention from its weapons program, it will have Hizbullah or Hamas re-open a front with Israel. And Iran will do everything in its power to keep the Palestinians or Syria from making peace with Israel. This veto power will grow exponentially if Iran is allowed to attain nuclear weapons.
There is not much substantive difference between the stances of Livni, Barak, and Netanyahu toward Iran, and Obama's policies will largely decide what the outcome of Iran's program will be. For Israel, the relationship with the United States is the single most important component of its grand strategy. The Prime Minister who can cultivate a strong relationship with President Obama and ensure that Israel is not pushed too hard to make unilateral concessions will best protect Israel's interests.
I subscribe to the old Israeli maxim that only the Left can make war, and only the Right can make peace. The Left, traditionally Labor, has the international legitimacy to strike back at Israel's enemies when the need arises. The Right, or Likud, has the domestic legitimacy to make the hard sacrifices for peace.
Kadima's Tzipi Livni can best make peace while protecting Israel. She has the best chance of creating a secular coalition. She has been measured and cool during the two recent wars, and Americans have grown to admire her. If she is able to bring Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu into her coalition, she will have the domestic mandate to move toward peace if the situation presents itself, while presenting to Israel's enemies a posture of strength that will deter them from derailing efforts toward a better future.