Thursday, February 12, 2009

Israel in 2009: A One-Block State of the Right

From BESA Center Perspectives Papers No. 67, February 12, 2009, by Hillel Frisch*:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The election result this week confirms the emergence of a one-block, right-of-center dominant political reality in Israel; a fact that is likely to dominate for many years to come. Kadima's electoral achievement is ephemeral; it masks the deeper and much more enduring socio-political ascendancy of the political right, both nationalist and religious. Both Livni and Netanyahu failed to sufficiently appreciate this reality, and as a result, made strategic campaign mistakes.

... More than 60 percent of the electorate voted for parties on the nationalist, right and religious side of the political spectrum.

...Emerging now is the potential for a one-block dominant variant: a soft right-wing block that spells an end to the Oslo era of grandiose peacemaking with the Palestinians.

(I say "soft right wing" because even parties of the Israeli right wing, with the exception of the tiny National Unity party, today espouse diplomatic positions that characterized the Labor Party before the Oslo peace process.)

...Both leading candidates made strategic mistakes ...he sought to move to the center by attacking and marginalizing the far right-wing within his party. Presumably the move to the center was the lesson he learned from his 1999 election failure against Barak. However, Netanyahu failed to fathom the extent to which the Israeli electorate had moved to the right, due to accumulated waves of Arab violence – the al-Aqsa Intifada, and the Lebanese and Gaza wars. Netanyahu thus deserves a failing grade for strategic acumen; a worrisome failure for Israel's likely prime minister.

Livni scores little better for much the same reason. She should have moved to the center, when in fact she moved to the left. She drew off votes from Labor without increasing the size of the center-left bloc she could lead....

As a member of the former ruling triumvirate and of the once hegemonic Labor Party, Ehud Barak still deserves mention. Barak has outstanding virtues: he was an excellent soldier, IDF chief-of-staff, and Minister of Defense. But he's no politician or statesman. In many ways, Barak should have bolted to the Likud long ago and sought to make Likud more centrist.

... Livni's Kadima became a yuppie, Ashkenazi, secular party; which strategically is the wrong image. Abraham Lincoln long ago said that God loves the common man, since he made so many of them. This is especially true of the Jewish Israeli electorate.

The Israeli common man is today mostly to be found in the Likud, Shas and Israel Beiteinu parties. ...supporters mostly of Sephardic origin ...In short, the two blocs represent two markedly different cultures: a warm, traditional and brotherly culture, which includes the Russian variant – which is the dominant culture in Israel; versus a cold, achievement-oriented, secularized culture. Netanyahu is an oddity within his own block (but so was Menachem Begin).

Livni also made the strategic mistake of writing off the religious public, and by so doing, strengthened the center-right and religious alliance that has dominated Israel for most of the past 25 years. Of course, Livni should not take all of the blame. Ultra Orthodox parties certainly prefer a male prime minister to a female one, the biblical Prophetess Devorah notwithstanding.

...The one-block, right-wing-dominant state could have major bearing on Israel's relations with the United States. Tensions can be expected between an Obama administration that has announced its intention to refocus on Israeli-Palestinian peace, and a Likud-led government.

Such fears are probably exaggerated, because the Obama administration will soon realize that the Hamas-Fatah civil war makes anything other than conflict management unattainable. Therefore, Israel and the US should get along fine, albeit, bumpily. In any case, both will be absorbed by their common major concern – preventing a nuclear Iran. To meet that threat, a one-block dominant right-wing government in Israel is as good as any other.

*Prof. Hillel Frisch is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, and the co-editor of the upcoming book Israel at the Polls.
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