Bibi Is Back (Unfortunately)
Back in October, a month that seems oh so long ago, I wrote in an editorial, “If Labor does not lose as much ground as it is projected to [in the upcoming Israeli elections], and if [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni… is able to convince the Israeli public to elect her party [Kadima], they might just be able to shift the dynamics enough to give the likes of Shas and UTJ [ultra right-wing parties] less power to demand … concessions from the major parties.” I truly believed back then that Kadima, a centrist party, could swing the elections their way; that Labor (a left of center party) could regain some of its footing; and that the Israeli public could withstand the inclination to lean to the right. Basically, I clung to any possibility that would prevent Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) and his right-wing Likud party from winning the Israeli elections on February 10. Alas, I'm now sadly amused at how naïve I was.
Of course, this was all before the shaky truce between Israel and Hamas became defunct, and before Israel launched its missiles, phosphorus shells, and God knows what else at Gaza. Palestinian unity talks were still on the table back then too and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in a more authoritative position than he is today. Leave it to Israel to hugely alter that reality.
As the war on Gaza raged, Israeli military and government spokespeople would rarely bring up the topic of the impending Israeli elections in February. But anybody with a little bit of insight into Israeli politics would have realized that Operation Cast Lead, seen as the brainchild of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was also conveniently aimed at helping their parties, Kadima and Labor, to win more seats in those upcoming elections. Kadima and Labor, perceived as too weak and too ‘dove-ish’ by the Israeli public, had to show they could be tough on Hamas and the Palestinians. In the words of one Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, "War is but a continuation of an election campaign by other means."
When I wrote my first piece on this topic, Kadima and Likud were neck and neck in the polls, though there were hints that Kadima might edge forward. The same polls also showed that Labor was likely to lose seats. It would seem that today, the ‘let’s destroy Hamas and make ourselves look tougher’ plan has backfired. Operation Cast Lead has not instilled the Israeli public with confidence in Kadima or Labor. The most recent survey puts Likud ahead of Kadima by eight seats. Labor, however, has regained some footing, and might not lose the seats it had feared for. Nevertheless, on the prime ministerial front, the survey showed that 29 percent of Israelis still favor Benjamin Netanyahu as their next Prime Minister. Only 16 percent preferred Livni, while a mere nine percent said they would support Barak.
Ironically, the poll also indicated that Netanyahu was also the top choice for the role of Finance Minister. Clearly your average Israeli’s memory does not extend as far back as 1997 and 2000, when Netanyahu and his wife were investigated for corruption on more than one occasion. They were investigated for allegations that they had illegally kept 700 state gifts amassed while he was in office and said to be worth $100,000. Netanyahu was also investigated for misusing state funds after he received more than $100,000 worth of services from a private building contractor who did the work for free in anticipation of political favors (but upon receiving nothing, later tried to bill the state). And of course, there were the accusations that Netanyahu made a deal with right-wing Shas party ministers, asking for their support on a deal in exchange for Netanyahu arranging a plea bargain for their leader, Ariye Deri, who was at the time on trial for corruption.
No… Despite all these allegations of corruption, Netanyahu is likely to become the next Prime Minister of Israel, and Likud is likely to become the largest political party in the Israeli Knesset. To make matters worse, Likud’s primaries, held in early December, catapulted several ultra right-wing hawks into the top 30 places on the party's line up of candidates for the elections. The top five candidates, MK Gideon Sa'ar, MK Gilad Erdan, and former MKs Reuven Rivlin, Moshe Kachlon, and Benny Begin, have won the unequivocal endorsement of infamous Israeli politician Moshe Feiglin. If you don’t understand how worrying that is, consider that Moshe Feiglin’s idea of a utopia would be a 'purely Jewish' state of Israel. Yes, these are the most likely contenders for the role of Palestine’s partners for peace. In short, any future peace talks may be in deep trouble.
And why did the Cast Lead plan backfire? Because Netanyahu and his Likud party were in a win-win situation all along. Netanyahu openly and loudly gave it his full support. If it was a success, Netanyahu could ride on the coattails of its victory. If it failed, he could blame it on Olmert, Barak and Livni - it was their idea after all. Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist, recently wrote, “Every war helps the Right. War, by its very nature, arouses in the population the most primitive emotions – hate and fear, fear and hate. These are the emotions on which the Right has been riding for centuries.”
Still, at least if Netanyahu wins, we Palestinians will know who we’re dealing with and what to expect. Netanyahu is about as extremist as they come in Israeli politics, though perhaps not as extremist as the notorious Arab hater Avigdor Lieberman. The wife of assassinated Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin confessed she held Netanyahu responsible for creating the hostile climate that encouraged a right-wing extremist to assassinate her husband. This accusation came after a photograph was taken of Netanyahu leading a mass demonstration in which people carried a coffin adorned with the sign, ‘Yitzhak Rabin – murderer of Zionism’. At least with Netanyahu, he shows his stripes openly. Barak and Livni, on the other hand, talk about peace and war in the same breath. Livni has spoken about the two-state solution with the Palestinians, yet has turned around and discussed with Israeli school students the prospect that Palestinian-Israelis will be expected to move to that future Palestinian state.
All the same, even if we think we understand him, deep down all Palestinians fear Netanyahu’s probable takeover in February. Netanyahu is one of those who believe that God gave Israel the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He constantly talks of Palestinian economic growth rather than the transition to an independent Palestinian state. And I suspect that Barack Obama might find it more difficult to deal with Netanyahu as opposed to Olmert or Livni. There may come a day not long after February 10 when we all realize that Olmert was perhaps the lesser of two evils.