(Meretz Political Ad: Two Sperm Meet and Talk at Airport)
Some observers are suggesting that the new parties and new personalities in Israeli politics have clobbered the old.
I think that the bigger story is that the political right in Israel has imploded. Ariel Sharon as former head of the Likud Party, the party now headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, broke apart the vertebrae of the right and shattered the paralysis that had frozen Israel into a long-term self-destructive position regarding its all-important border dispute with Palestinians.
Had Ariel Sharon, who still lies in a coma, died a few days before the election, Kadima -- which drew members from both Likud and Labor -- might have added another ten seats to its tally, but this vote yesterday was not about sympathy for Sharon. In fact, Kadima performed a bit below expectations, securing just 28 seats. But that's enough -- and frankly, Olmert's need for partners makes him more pliable on some of Israel's domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Amir Peretz performed above expectations. Interestingly, his campaign was helped by the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner which will get at least some credit in Peretz's surprising success. Stan Greenberg's firm was prominently profiled in the recent documentary hit, Our Brand is Crisis, about which I'll be writing more soon.
Peretz wants the government to focus on economic policies that improve conditions for Israel's working underclass and he is a strong believer in "negotiated" rather than "unilaterally imposed" solutions regarding to Israel's permanent borders and other issues like access to and control of Jerusalem, right of Palestinians to return, settlement-related land swaps, and the like. Peretz was able to keep Labor whole, and even moved it up a few notches above 2003 levels even though there were significant defections to Kadima.
Shas, an orthodox party, that is a likely coalition partner in the new government surged far beyond expectations and is now Israel's third largest political party. Some think that this "black hats" crowd is opposed to anything that would undermine a "Greater Israel". I'm no specialist on Shas, but in the limited discussions I have had with politically aware orthodox Jews, I sense no such rigidity. They are not part of the National Right in Israel and focus more on the religious dimensions of public policy. My sense is that Shas can support the right kind of negotiated Palestinian-Israel deal. Olmert must think so as well or he would not be inviting Shas into the government.
Israel's fourth largest political party is not the Likud, but is rather the new Yisrael Beitenu party headed by the charismatic Avigdor Lieberman -- whose party depends almost entirely on Israel's newest block of mostly-Russian speaking immigrants. Lieberman's party is ultra-nationalist and very committed to settlement protection and expansion, but at the same time must deal with the chronic underemployment and social problems related to his primary constituents. There is a lot of tension regarding the Russian immigrants, many of whom more traditional Israelis do not consider real Jews. This is something I had never heard before -- but the tectonics between other parts of Israeli society and the Russian-speaking segments are fragile.
Yisrael Beitenu will also be seen by many as the new leader of the political opposition. But one of the trends I saw when I was recently in Israel is that the supporters of this party were increasingly isolated from other parts of Israeli society -- and while they have coalesced and pushed their party forward, they may have just hit their upper water mark. I asked the Mayor of Israel's largest settlement in the Occupied territories whether he would become a champion for protecting and promoting the interests of other settlements, many of which have become dominated by the new Russian immigrants. He said definitively, "No", and said that there were serious disagreements among the heads of various settlements.
Thus, Yisrael Beitenu may have a difficult time working in common purpose with other opposition parties if it's own future strength depends upon an agitated and motivated ethnic group that other parties will no doubt either try to co-opt or isolate politically. Given that Olmert has so quickly committed himself to negotiations with the Palestinians, he is calculating that he can get away with bulldozing the supporters of Yisrael Beitenu who solidly support the far right -- but which now have little influence in any of the other leading parties.
Now in fifth, somewhat shockingly, is Likud under the probable temporary direction of Netanyahu. Netanyahu failed to capture the imagination of Israel's security-concerned citizens in the wake of Sharon's move to Kadima. Some blame Netanyahu for inspiring Rabin's death when he failed to speak out against extremist elements in his party who depicted Rabin as a latter-day Nazi. Netanyahu again failed to curb Likud elements who were doing the same with both Ariel Sharon and Olmert. This was one of the reasons why Netanyahu's efforts backfired. He flirts with radicals who tilt more towards violence and force than towards principled policy stands and constructive engagement. Some have told me that chances are high that Netanyahu will be de-throned soon.
On other fronts, the Pensioners -- a new party concerned primarily with seeing to the social safety net for Israel's more aged workers and retirees -- did unbelievably well and probably shore up Amir Peretz's intentions to drive more national attention towards the domestic economy.
The Arab parties also did resoundingly well and have done a good job of securing a Knesset presence more in line with their 20% portion of Israel's population. Interestingly, the success of the Arab parties will underscore for the Israeli Jewish parties why they must move forward on permanent status negotiations. When looking at the entire population of Israelis and Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, the population is about 52.5% Israeli Jew and 47.5% non-Israeli Jew, and the latter are growing at a raid democratic clip while Israeli Jews are suffering declining replacement rates.
The one somwhat sad result in this election was Meretz, headed by former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin who initiated the Oslo process and who is one of the most intelligent and capable policy players in Israeli politics. Beilin is on the left and focused his party's agenda on securing "civil marriage" -- which is a huge issue it turns out.
Rather than focusing more squarely on the needs of "civil marriage" in heterosexual relationships, Yossi's advisors pushed him to make it a campaign for civil marriage rights in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships -- but the ads promoting same-sex marriage seemed to me to stand out more than the straight ads.
Meretz ran one hilarious political ad with two guys dressed as big white "drops" -- sort of like a white candy kiss -- but these were meant to be drops of sperm (no, I'm not kidding), and they were discussing their fears of being born as a woman because women in Israel are often subjected to religious and other forms of discrimination. Then, I think (as I don't speak Hebrew) one of the sperm "hit on" the other sperm and mentioned that he looked forward to "coming out" -- code words that the sperm thinks he's gay. (Note that I may have some errors in translation from the sperm episode.)
I admire the bravery of the ads, and they are certainly far ahead of the discussions America is having on these fronts -- but still, I'm not sure that Yossi Beilin's party selected a roster of policy objectives that would move it forward. The jury is still out on whether Meretz will be brought into government or not. My sources tell me that it's doubtful at this time.
Hope these reflections are useful to those of you who don't follow the political theatrics in Israel closely. There are many sources more informed than The Washington Note on the nuances and historical context of what is currently happening -- but I also feel that there has been a sort of "cartel" of institutions and commentators in Washington who have dominated discourse on Israel-Palestine issues, and I'm intending to help shatter that cartel.