Friday, March 31, 2006

Elections - Elusive Stability

A funny thing happened to the Israeli bourgeois on its way to dismantling the last remains of the welfare state and privatizing its way through those pearly gates into a globalized heaven. The ball was handed to Ariel Sharon precisely in order to execute game plans for remodeling the Israeli political system. The goals had been defined by the poli-sci and media mavens: The means to the goal was the creation of a hegemonic centrist party that could secure a coalition for far reaching structural changes in the Israeli political system.

The first short term goal was to lower the number of parties by raising the threshold for representation. The plan worked out in the previous Knesset was to raise the 1.5% threshold to 2.5%, but a last minute clash with the ultra religious groups (which can unite or run together on any given day) resulted in a compromise of 2%. The 2.5 % threshold, if imposed in the recent elections would have eliminated the representation of Azmi Bashara’s National Assembly Party, Balad (three seats) and the other two parties, HADASH (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) and the Arab Unity List would have squeezed through this time, only because of the low turnout. The parliamentary representation of the Palestinian Arab community could have been wiped out, transferring ten seats to the Zionist parties, to be divided up according to their relative strength. This electoral catastrophe was averted almost by chance

The second element of the electoral reform strategy is the so-called movement for an Israeli constitution. The movement camouflages it real goal with pious references to constitutional rights and regional representation, but its actual target is the Israeli proportional representation (PR) election system. Money wants stability and stability loves the two or three party system, and therefore PR is passé. The campaign for a constitution went on and goes on all the time, targeting schools and universities and preparing the ground for a new attack on PR, in the event of extreme political crises.

We cannot know if Sharon would have pulled it off. Olmert didn’t. Sharon had succeeded in discrediting the settler right and its allies to the point that they were unable even to gain from his absence. Olmert did not have Sharon’s status and the resulting vacuum was filled with angry voters demanding the return of entitlements taken away from them by Sharon’s finance minister, Netanyahu. They streamed in mass numbers into the fold of those parties who could claim that their hands had not spilled blood during the 2004-2005 social welfare cuts. Shas, which was in the opposition, and the ultra religious parties did well. A previously non-existent party of pensioners came out of nowhere and received seven seats. A reformed Labor survived the anti-Netanyahu landslide by electing Peretz, who had opposed Labor participation in the Sharon government, as its leader.

The disentitled, the victims of reduced social spending among the ill, the elderly, the handicapped, and the poor have presented a 12 billion shekel bill to the Olmert coalition before it comes into existence. Labor, Shas and even the pensioners wouldn’t mind some sort of wiggle room to get out of their clear commitments to their voters which include a state pension plan for all citizens, a rise in the minimum wage, restoration of children allowances and the like. But the meaning of their election success is simply unequivocal. Olmert could, of course, turn to the settlers and the racists who had attempted to devour Sharon alive. Olmert could ally himself with them by guaranteeing the uneasy occupation status quo. But then it would be clear to all that he is befouling the grave of Ariel Sharon.

The United States has showered compliments and good will on Olmert. He, it appears, understands their need for some sort of motion necessary to give, at the least, a semblance (howsoever ephemeral) of progress towards peace. After having undermined the prestige of Abu Mazen and enthroned Hamas, the U.S would like to think that there is someone in charge who can hold the fort in this part of the Middle East. This is quite important since no one running things in DC is capable of thinking simultaneously about all the US problems in the region. Bush is up to his neck in the Iraq muddy-muddy and he hopes that Ehud Olmert can prevent any more waves out this way. This might be expensive.

Of the Dog and His Tail

Is the Israeli lobby ultimately responsible for the unwise, unfair, and unbelievably skewered policies of the US government towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Can the real bosses of the pro-Israeli lobby, the Israeli government(s) take credit for shifting the orientation of a gigantic world power away from its authentic interests towards total and unqualified support to Israel.

This is not a new argument. The earlier form in which it appeared dealt with the problem of the dog and his tail. The analytical innovation, now taken up and promoted by Messers Walt & Mearsheimer in their now famous article, was the discovery of a tail which wagged the dog. In terms of appearances, it certainly looks like that a lot or most of the time. The tail does seem to wag the dog. Ah, but appearances are deceiving. There is a slight problem. Who taught the tail to wag the dog? Any dog lover will tell you not to underestimate the intelligence of a dog, nor his ability to teach his own tail to wag him when he wants to be wagged.

Another Election Comment – Pray for Us in Jerusalem

Please offer up a bit of sympathy for your friends in the left in Jerusalem. What a town. Get these numbers. The leading party is the Ultra-Orthodox Aguda Israel with 18%. In second place, we have the fundamentalist Sephardic religious party, Shas, with more than 15%. In third place, the fanatical settler party formed by National Unity and the National Religious Party received more than 12%. Lieberman’s racist, transfer party received more than 6 %. The Likud went down from 30% to 10 % (I guess that one can find some solace in this). Kadima (12%), Labor (10%) and MERETZ (3%), all together, came up with a quarter of the votes. The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality received one third of one per cent. It’s a very tough town.