Dove, hawk square off in contest to lead Israel
By MICHAEL MATZA
JERUSALEM - 10 Dec: The Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed continues, employment is widespread, the economy is devoid of tourism or foreign investment, and everyone is concerned about a possible U.S.-led war with Iraq. By most estimates, the Jewish state has never been in sadder shape.
Against this grim backdrop, two very different men - incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the right-wing Likud Party and Haifa Mayor Avram Mitzna of the left-wing Labor Party - are squaring off in the contest to lead Israel into an uncertain future.
The campaign leading to the Jan. 28 general election begins with Labor facing a serious problem: how to shake off the security and economic failures of the "national unity" government in which it served as Sharon's junior partner for 20 months. That coalition crumbled when Labor bolted in November, setting the stage for early elections under Israel's parliamentary system.
Mitzna has countered the "ex-partner problem" by presenting a clear alternative to Likud orthodoxy. While Likud maintains that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is an impediment to peace and must be bypassed or expelled, Mitzna says he would negotiate with him.
Like Sharon, Mitzna is a former Israeli army general, but his military experience has shaped him differently.
"Mitzna is a declared dove," says leftwing activist Uri Avnery. "He presents to the voters a clear, left-wing alternative: negotiations with Arafat; evacuation of most settlements; immediate withdrawal from the whole Gaza Strip; compromise over Jerusalem; a Palestinian state."
If negotiations fail, says Mitzna, he promises unilateral separation from the Palestinians within a year. Israel would simply cease occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip land it acquired in the 1967 Six Day War and pull back to a defensible line approximating its 1967 border.
If he fails to win election, Mitzna says, he will resist being wooed into a unity alliance with Likud.
Sharon supports a limited Palestinian state, principally because that position has been urged on him by the United States, which has been trying to broker peace in the region. His response to the more than 85 Palestinian suicide bombings in the past 26 months has been the systematic destruction of the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure. He says the land-for-peace formula of the Oslo peace process, begun in 1993, is "null and void." And he insists no deal can be struck with the Palestinians as long as Arafat is their leader.
Sharon is widely expected to translate his success in Likud's primary into success in the general election.
"In troubled times, such as war, people prefer a leader who has the image of a tribal leader," political psychologist Shaul Kimhi recently told the newspaper Haaretz. "That inclination, combined with a loss of hope among many people, played into Ariel Sharon's hands."
The peculiar dynamics of the Israeli political system will be important to the outcome of the election, the composition of the next government and its potential for stability, says Reuven Hazan, senior lecturer in political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
To begin with, Hazan says, "Israel has no electoral districts. The entire country is one voting bloc."
Instead of voting for individuals, Israelis cast their ballots for parties, which present lists of candidates for seats in the 120-member parliament called the Knesset. Those lists are being finalized this week.
The percentage of the vote each party gets is the percentage of seats it will receive. The party winning the largest number of seats forms the government, and its leader becomes prime minister.
But the government the prime minister forms has to be approved by at least 61 members of the Knesset. If no party wins that many seats, the prime minister has to form alliances with smaller parties. Such parties have been on the increase in Israel over the last decade, as the influence of Likud and Labor waned. In 1992 Israel had 10 parties; in 1996 there were 13; by 1999 there were 15. Today there are more than two dozen.
"What this creates is a lot of participation. Everyone votes. Everyone feels like they're part of the game," says Hazan, who estimates that 75 percent of the Israeli electorate routinely participates in elections. (The exception is Israeli Arabs, who sometimes boycott elections because they feel disenfranchised by the outcome.)
The need to form alliances is also the weakness of the Israeli system.
Minority parties can hold the dominant party hostage and often do, creating a situation where the leadership can barely govern.
In 1992, the Labor party held 44 seats and Likud 32, for a total of 76 of 120. Now, a decade later, they hold just 45, well below the 61 needed for a parliamentary majority.
The declining influence of Likud and Labor means "the two big parties can no longer do anything on their own," says Hazan. "How can you govern when your own party doesn't have the authority to set the agenda for the government?"
If Sharon is re-elected, his first challenge will be to create a stable government within a framework of ad hoc alliances within the fractious Knesset.
"On Jan. 28th, when you see the exit polls, you will know right away if the prime minister, who more than likely is going to be Ariel Sharon, [will] be able to survive to the following elections," said Hazan.
"If (his party) doesn't have at least 35 seats ... we're not going to be stable for the next four years."