Goal of Israeli left: second place

Likud will likely win Israeli election; Labor, riven by disunity, is battling to stay relevant.

Israelis get a chance to participate in their favorite spectator sport when they go to the polls Tuesday.

There's no nailbiting about the victor, as a win for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party is pretty much foreordained. Instead, Israelis are riveted by the race for second place with even Likud rooting for its traditional rival, Labor, over the stridently secular Shinui Party.

The situation says as much about Israeli voters, bruised by the conflict with Palestinians, as it does about Labor's implosion. But it's the second place jockeying that underscores the central political problem here, a system that often leaves governments hostage to minority interests.

"A country where politics don't intrude in the daily lives of people can manage quite well with this kind of system," says Mark Heller, a senior researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "But Israel can't. It means the system is less able to cope with very serious problems."

Security tops that list. On Saturday, Israel conducted its largest raid into the Gaza Strip in two years, demolishing metal factories and killing 12. The raid came a day after Israel demolished four bridges connecting a Gaza town to the rest of the Strip, a response to Palestinian missile attacks on Friday.

These days, Likud also has a more unusual concern - that its main rival won't do well enough. Without a reasonably strong Labor coalition, Sharon can't form the durable government needed to pursue his policies. As one Likud official told local media, "This victory may be too sweet."

The Labor party has slid steadily in the polls, losing 1 1/2 seats a week to a current estimate of 17. The problem is part of an ongoing decline in Labor's fortunes. The party is strongly associated with the failed Oslo peace process. Its image as an elitist group is also out of step with much of the electorate.

Ethnicity plays a role too, as the party is seen as a stronghold of Jews of European descent. With identity a strong force in Israeli politics, especially among parties representing Jews of Middle Eastern descent, Labor has lost out.

"This is the tribalization of politics in which people's vote is as much determined by identity as it is by substance on security or economic issues," says Mr. Heller. "They look at parties and say, 'Do I identify with these people?' "

Labor's decision to join Likud in a unity government after the last election also cost it credibility. It offered voters no alternative to the Likud's stance on the conflict or the economy. And in the course of this election campaign, Laborites have been publicly squabbling, broadcasting the party's lack of unity.

The disagreements are largely over leader Amram Mitzna's policies, which are leaving Israeli voters cold. The former mayor of Haifa advocates immediate negotiations with the Palestinians, separation between the two peoples and an evacuation of the settlements, a stance that critics say rewards Palestinian militants.

There are other complaints. "This is a difficult time and people don't trust Mitzna to lead them," says Eytan Gilboa, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "He is inexperienced, he has never served in national government, and he's made statements on the [conflict] that most people don't think are reasonable."

Mr. Mitzna has also declared that Labor will not join a unity government with Likud. In the current uncertainty, "people have a yearning for a national unity government and parties who do not want to be part of one are penalized for this," says Ephraim Inbar, also a Bar Ilan political scientist.

Mitzna's future as party leader will depend on Labor's performance. If it does not pass the 20-seat mark, other Laborites who favor a unity government will try to oust him as leader.

Labor's losses are creating a domino effect. Many of Labor's disaffected voters are heading to Shinui, a party that campaigns largely against benefits given to ultra-Orthodox Jews. A growing part of the population, the ultra-Orthodox get tax breaks, and generous state funding, and do not serve in the army.

Secular Israelis complain that they support and protect the Haredim, as they're known here. They also chafe against ultra-Orthodox rabbis deciding who can get married and whether a couple can get divorced.

Polls show that these voters will boost Shinui from its current six seats to a whopping 18. This surge makes religious Israelis nervous. Many who would ordinarily support Sharon and the Likud are now backing a religious party instead, whittling away at the Likud's margin of victory.

And if Shinui becomes the second- largest party in the 120-seat Knesset, it will be that much harder for Sharon to form a unity government. Shinui has already announced that it will not join a bloc that includes religious parties.

This leaves Mr. Sharon with a dilemma. If he cannot forge a coalition with Labor and Shinui, he will have to turn to right-wing and religious parties. That is an unworkable option, as these parties oppose Sharon's stated commitment to a Palestinian state.

Likud officials say that Sharon worries that such a coalition would spark a diplomatic crisis and lead the US to refuse Israel's request for $12 billion in aid.

It is the latest example of the unwieldy business of coalition building in the Knesset, where parties earn a seat if they win as little as 1 percent of the vote. That low threshold coupled with the tribalization of local politics has, over time, had a fragmenting effect.

Large parties have gotten thinner slices of the Knesset, turning marginal parties into kingmakers. The result is often gridlock and early elections. In the last six years, Israelis have had three elections. If Sharon's coalition falls this time, Israelis could be at the polls again in 12 to 18 months.

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