Tzipi Livni, the head of Israel’s ruling party Kadima, is saying “hello elections, goodbye blackmail” in her decision to quit trying to wrangle together a coalition deal with fellow political parties.
The woman who would be prime minister told the country Sunday night, “There are others who are willing to pay any price, but I am not willing to sell the state and its citizens only to become the prime minister.”
The reference was a not-so-veiled snub at her main rival for the job, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, observers speculate quietly, has made a deal with Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, to acquiesce to their demands in return for their support.
It is Shas that Livni, a political centrist, blames for foiling the coalition talks with a steep price tag for joining a government. Their conditions included two zingers: taking the future of Jerusalem off the table in negotiations with the Palestinians, and demanding almost $400 million in social welfare funds aimed at their target constituency — poor, religious families with numerous children.
Netanyahu was forcefully thrown out of the prime minister’s office by Israeli voters in 1999, but as leader of the opposition he has regained some of his former popularity; according to the polls, he is Livni’s stiffest competition.
However, polls Monday greeted Livni, Israel’s second female foreign minister since Golda Meir — who hopes to follow in her footsteps to also become prime minister — with some good news. A poll by Dahar Research Institute showed Kadima, the centrist political party she leads and which is currently in power, as winning 29 seats as opposed to 26 seats for Netanyahu’s opposition Likud in the 120-member parliament, known as the Knesset. Another poll by TNS Teleseker showed Kadima winning 31 seats and Likud 29 if the election were held today.
Livni was given the task of forming a new government after she won as head of Kadima last month, after current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his resignation under a cloud of corruption investigations. She has been presenting herself as a new breed of politician on the Israeli political scene: one with clean hands.
New elections would likely be held in February or March.
Nicknamed “Mrs. Clean,” Livni is spinning her decision to call for elections as a way to avoid sullying herself and the country by pandering to Shas — a party considered something of the enfante terrible of Israeli politics. Led by their spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef, a frail 88-year-old rabbi, along with a collection of politicians, they are notorious for conditioning their entrance into ruling coalitions with large packages of financial goodies.
Since news that elections were imminent broke over the weekend, the Israeli media has been full of commentators excoriating Shas, along with other political parties, for baring their teeth and making threats as part of the now-familiar dance of negotiating their way into power.
Writing in the Hebrew daily Maariv, Ben Caspit concluded, “Only we are left, stuck in a depressing leadership crisis, with a system of government that is impossible, a rotten, stinking dish of scrambled eggs that includes greed, narrow interests, corruption, and intrigues.”
“All of this creates an unmanageable country, the only one in the world that will be devoting the next several months to a bizarre elections campaign instead of to a united and determined national effort for economic survival. And that is even before we have begun to talk about the security challenges,” he wrote.
In an Israel especially weary of political corruption and dirty deals in the wake of the many investigations of top government figures, of whom Olmert is only one example, Livni’s advantage is the sense of propriety she exudes.
It’s an asset she knows she has to highlight in her bid to remind people she represents a different way of doing politics.
One way in which Livni could endear herself to an Israeli public is to talk about election reform during the campaign. Israelis are disillusioned by a political system in which the ruling party never wins a majority and is therefore dependent on smaller parties to cobble together a ruling coalition. The coalitions are usually fragile — nobody can really remember the last time a government served its full term.
“The Israeli system is a form of glorified and officialized blackmail and bribery. It’s bribery to get parties into a coalition, and blackmail for staying inside the coalition,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political pollster and analyst.
Reform is a subject that could perk up the ears of voters tired of seeing their leaders try to build coalitions first and to work to preserve them later, taking time away from dealing with national issues of existential importance. Among those is the peace process with the Palestinians. The elections will likely put efforts on that front on hold.
Needless to say, President Bush’s hope to have a Mideast peace deal in hand before he leaves office this January — which was always a long shot — has become more of an impossible dream than ever.