(UPDATED Sunday, 11 December)
I had a root-canal treatment this morning, so of course my thoughts turned to the Likud.
This is not to suggest that I find Israeli politics at all reminiscent of dental surgery; I’ve already used that analogy once, and I’d hate to repeat myself. (OK, actually I’d hate to repeat myself and get caught doing so; an aversion to embarrassment is almost as good as a sense of ethics.) What I was thinking this time – I think it was at about the moment the drilling started – was that like my poor lower-right premolar, the Likud appears to need some help if it wants to survive.
Of course, we shouldn’t take political polling performed four months before an election too seriously; the current forecasts of a mere ten or fourteen Knesset seats for the post-Ariel-Sharon Likud may well be overly pessimistic, just as the polls giving as many as 39 seats to Sharon’s new Kadima party could well prove overly optimistic. But even if we take the polls with plenty of salt, it’s clear that the Likud faces some serious challenges; even winning half as many mandates as the party received in the last elections looks difficult, and – quite apart from the poll results – it’s obvious that the party needs to make some urgent decisions about how to position itself in Israel’s crowded political marketplace.
The Likud’s best-remembered ancestor, Herut, was the party of Ze’ev Jabotinsky: strongly nationalistic, ideological, mostly secular, and never very successful on Election Day. After it was created in a 1973 merger, the Likud first won a national election in 1977, when enough voters finally got fed up with a Labor Party that was perceived as Ashkenazi-elitist and corrupt. Since then, the archetypal Likud voter has been working-class, Sephardi, and – while certainly right-of-center – less ideologically motivated than the classic Herut voter. Likud politicians have included hard-core Herutniks, middle-of-the-road pragmatists, and plenty of the usual sleazebags who gravitate towards power, prestige, and money. (Of course, these categories aren’t mutually exclusive: some Herut types can be surprisingly pragmatic in office, and some of the sleazebags are quite competent and even have a principle or two – usually hidden in a bottom drawer under a pile of clothes that no longer fit.) To complicate the mix further, groups of people who probably never voted for the Likud have joined the party in order to gain influence from within, or even to take it over; Moshe Feiglin’s Manhigut Yehudit (“Jewish Leadership”) faction is the prime example of the latter phenomenon.
In other words, the Likud, pre-“Big Bang”, had become something of a mish-mosh.
Two recent events now threaten the Likud: First, Ariel Sharon has left the party, taking with him a substantial portion of the party’s pragmatic wing, and, apparently, a large chunk of the party’s voters. (Carrying lots of stuff along with you is easy when your gravitational field is as large as Arik’s – not that I should talk.) Second, Amir Peretz – a Sephardi Jew from a development town, with a world-class moustache and execrable English – has become the new leader of the Labor Party. All of a sudden, working-class Sephardim and others who like populist economics (and facial hair, of course) have an alternative to the Likud (which was pretty good at the economics part, until Netanyahu came along) and Shas (which is OK on populist economics and quite good at growing beards). And centrist-to-mildly-right-wing voters who’ve been voting Likud because the Labor Party seemed to be stuck on Planet Sheinkin appear to feel happy with the Kadima Party, at least for now.
As I see it, the Likud has two basic options now: First, it can position itself as a right-wing party strongly opposed to further withdrawals (or at least to unilateral ones) from the Territories. This would mean running directly against Ariel Sharon, Kadima, and the Gaza/Northern West Bank “Disengagement”. Alternatively, the Likud can adopt a more nuanced attitude, and try to position itself as a potential working partner in a Kadima-led coalition. Neither approach looks especially promising, but the second one seems to offer a bit more hope for the Likud’s future.
The right-wing option presents a number of problems for the Likud: First, now that Uzi Landau has withdrawn from the Likud leadership race, none of the remaining candidates are terribly convincing in the role of Herut Stalwart. (I wish Dr. Landau had stayed in the race, by the way; I enjoy writing about him. He’s also intelligent and seems to be a genuinely nice person. He didn’t have the slightest chance of winning, mind you; he’s got about as much charisma as I do, but I program computers for a living and he’s supposed to be a politician.) Second, there are already plenty of right-wing parties out there with better credentials than what’s left of the Likud. If someone wants to vote against the Disengagement, why vote for the Likud when the National Union consistently and forthrightly opposed the plan? Apart from these specific problems in positioning the Likud as a genuine far-right-wing party, I’m also very skeptical about the overall size of the far-right-wing vote; having one more party scrabbling for a piece of the pie won’t make the pie any bigger. In short, I don’t see any obvious way in which this option could work for the Likud.
The second option would be quite difficult for the Likud, and is unlikely to yield more than modest benefits; still, it may be the only way for the Likud to avoid complete irrelevance. Ideologically, there would appear to be enough ground between the hard-right-wing parties and Kadima for the Likud to stake out some territory; the goal would be to appeal to the tactical voter who is uncomfortable with the prospect of a Kadima-Labor-Left coalition and doesn’t want to waste his vote on a party that will sit on the Opposition benches for four years. If the Likud does decide to pursue this option, it will have to purge itself of some the “rebels” who induced Sharon to leave the party in the first place; it will also have to come up with some reasons for people to vote for it. (The trick would be to campaign mostly against Peretz and Labor, and keep criticism of Sharon and Kadima rather muted.)
* * *
Looking at the remaining candidates for the Likud leadership, we can see how they might fit into an overall Likud strategy:
Binyamin Netanyahu has somehow managed to become the front-runner in the Likud leadership race. This is partly, I think, because he has a mysterious reputation for being a politician who wins elections. I don’t think this reputation is deserved, however: after all, he’s only won one national election, and that was a razor-thin defeat of the Great Also-Ran, Shimon Peres. Even though he received special-effects help from Hamas (which may have been trying to get Netanyahu elected, or may just have been indulging its perennial predilection for blowing up buses), Bibi came as close as anyone in recent memory to giving Peres an election victory. When Netanyahu ran for re-election, he was soundly defeated by Ehud Barak – a man whose principal qualification for office was that he wasn’t named Binyamin Netanyahu. (I voted for Barak, by the way, for exactly that reason.)
As Ariel Sharon’s Finance Minister, Netanyahu made himself unpopular with the poor, with organized labor, and with other population segments hurt by his “Thatcherite” economic policies. He also managed to make a mess of his Disengagement politics, waffling pathetically and making a lot of noise without creating any real obstacles to Sharon’s plan. And Netanyahu would have a hard time capitalizing on Sharon’s little corruption problems – a fat target (you should pardon the expression) for most potential Sharon adversaries.
Yisrael Katz is positioning himself as the only candidate who voted consistently against Disengagement, now that Uzi Landau has dropped out of the race. (Moshe Feiglin, of course, vehemently opposed the Disengagement; but as he isn’t in the Knesset, he doesn’t count, I guess.) It’s pretty difficult to imagine Katz doing better than third or fourth in the race, though; he just doesn’t have the following and stature that the Likud needs in its next leader, and I don’t really think the Likud will decide to run on a strongly anti-Disengagement platform.
Moshe Feiglin would spell disaster for the Likud should he become the party’s leader, since he would take the party into ideological territory that is already fully occupied by Israel’s various far-right-wing parties. The people who’ll be choosing the next leader know this very well, and are not, in general, enthusiastic about political mass suicide.
Silvan Shalom has been a reasonably successful Foreign Minister, although he isn’t exactly Mister Flashy. He managed to go along with the Disengagement Plan while emitting occasional squeaks of complaint; these squeaks would be far from sufficient to convince any real anti-Disengagement enthusiasts to vote for a Shalom-led Likud, but they just might be enough to fit into a “yes, but” strategy designed to position the Likud as a coalition partner for Kadima. Shalom has plastered the country (or at least the roads I take to get to work) with “Only Silvan Can” posters; he hasn’t yet revealed exactly what he can do that others can’t. I’m looking for him to debut some intricate, secret yo-yo trick on the eve of the Likud election, challenging his opponents to reproduce it.
Shaul Mofaz has been a well-regarded Defense Secretary, and has “Sephardi appeal” to boot. He’s been positioning himself as a “social” candidate, without (as far as I’ve heard) actually saying anything specific enough to be criticized. As the person who implemented the Disengagement Plan without even a public grumble, he would certainly lose the Likud any anti-Disengagement votes that might have come its way; but on the other hand, as someone who seems to have been left in the rump-Likud by accident (it’s not clear whether he forgot to run after Sharon, whether Sharon forgot to pick Mofaz up on the way out, or whether Sharon really did leave Mofaz in the Likud as his not-so-secret agent) Mofaz would make a very convincing coalition partner in a Sharon-led government. UPDATE: Shaul Mofaz in fact left the Likud today, to join Kadima. The race now appears to be between Silvan Shalom and Binyamin Netanyahu; good luck, Likud!
The Likud’s best leadership choice, I think, would have been Shaul Mofaz, with Silvan Shalom in second place; but the party will probably wind up being led by Benyamin Netanyahu. (Of course, I expected Shimon Peres to remain as head of the Labor Party, so I’m clearly of no use as a prophet.) At best, the Likud is going to have a difficult task ahead of it; but with Netanyahu at its helm, the party may be in for a close encounter with an iceberg.