IN SEARCH OF A PRIME MINISTER
By Micah Halpern
Tuesday October 28, 2008
For the third time in only six years, Israelis will be heading to the polls in search of a prime minister.
I must confess, I did not see this one coming. Seldom have I been as off base as I was in thinking that the leader of the Kadima party, Tzipi Livni, would be unable to form a government. My predictions concerning the Middle East are usually on target and ahead of the curve - this time, however, it came at me like a curve ball.
Livni was in position to inherit a government from her predecessor. Ehud Olmert had left everything in place. All the former foreign minister and current head of the Kadima party had to do was make the same promises to the same people and parties that Olmert had made. The same promises that Ariel Sharon made before Olmert inherited his government.
Of course there are slight changes, variations on a few themes, but the principles are all the same. In the end, Livni was only able to cobble together 60 out of 120 Israeli Knesset members, exactly one half of the Parliamentary body. And that just wasn't enough. She needed one more vote.
Sixty is not a majority government in the Knesset, it is a narrow government. Other governments have been formed with only sixty members, but it has never been a prudent move. In a country in which a "vote of no confidence" is never farther than a breath away, it is a dangerous political move. And it was a move Livni was not prepared to make.
So now the country waits for another national election.
The part of the political equation that I got so wrong was the Shas party part. Shas has 12 seats in today's Knesset. With Shas in her government Tzipi Livni would have had a comfortable majority of 72. But Shas would not join.
My assumption was that Shas would do everything to avoid elections because elections themselves are so risky, because it is never clear whether a party will go up or down, will gain or lose seats and stature and power. Polls taken now in Israel have Shas losing seats in an upcoming election. A basic and sensible rule of Israeli politics is avoid elections if you think you are going to lose seats. But Shas doesn't play by the rules and my mistake was in underestimating just how far afield they would go this time around. Shas is not a regular political party. It is often referred to as an ultra religious party. It is not. It is a party run by religious leaders.
The masses of the Shas party are traditional, rather than religious themselves, but they feel very positively toward religion and toward their religious leaders. The members are the immigrant children and grandchildren of Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries. They are called "Aidot Hamizrach" which translates to mean "Eastern communities" and they are sometimes referred to as Sepharadim. In the 60 year context since Israel's establishment this group has felt they have not had opportunities for growth and true assimilation into the higher echelons of Israeli society. So Shas was created and continues to function as the political arm that fights for the social, political and religious needs of immigrant Jews from Arab lands.
The masses of Shas voters serve in the army. But the decisions in Shas are made by their great rabbinic leader, by Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef. Shas political leadership advises the Rabbi, but make no mistake about it, the decisions themselves are made by the Rabbi.
And Rav Ovadiah ruled that Shas was not to join in the Livni government. The conflict was over three items: Jerusalem; money to schools; money for families with large children. Most of the issues were resolved. But most is not good enough for Rav Ovadiah.
Shas will probably be a member in the next government go round, but after that election, they may have fewer seats which translates into a lot less power. And to their chagrin, that government may again be headed by Livni.
According to two polls out right now, Kadima headed by Tzipi Livni will keep the same number of seats or gain a couple more, which puts them at 29 - 31 Knesset member seats. Likud, the party that thinks it can steal the crown, will increase their seats to 26 - 29 which is not enough to edge out Kadima. According to the polls Labor is on the way out. Labor will not be a contender and Israel has probably come to the end of an era of Labor national leadership.
Mainstream Israelis responded well to Livni and to the fact that the almost-but-not-quite prime minister said "no" to Shas and would not buckle. Shas, on the other hand, is counting on luring back voters because the party stood on principle and did not capitulate on the issues so dear to their constituents.
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