As events in Egypt, Syria and Palestine heat up...
...The nation-state in the middle of all this, Israel, has had its own share of high political drama. True, instead of blood, only tears and virtual ink were shed there. But as usual in Israel-Palestine, it makes for a good story.
Earlier this year, I wrote that Israel's political system has long turned into a complete circus. At the time, many Very Serious People in Israel still pretended it wasn't the case. I didn't expect my view to be vindicated so completely and so comically.
Last Thursday the final party candidate lists for the elections to Israel's parliament - the Knesset - were submitted. The elections will take place in about 6 weeks. Once elected, a Knesset majority will choose the next government and its head the Prime Minister. The candidate-list submission marks the start of the "real money" phase of what has already become the longest and most outrageous election campaign in Israel's history. It seems we've seen it all:
* The campaign all but declared, with new parties and with opposing camps starting the trash-talk - only to learn that in the wee hours of the final night before the official start, the main opposition party decided to crawl into government and nix the entire thing? Check.
* After a few weeks, said opposition party finds a pretext to leave the government again - and everyone goes back to campaign mode? Check.
* Mergers and Acquisitions Galore? Check.
* With the campaign in full swing, the government launches a bloody military operation, whose connection to the election is too transparent for "plausible deniability"? An operation that nearly devolves into full-scale war? Check.
...more below the squiggle...
* After the operation ends in failure, the Security Minister quits the campaign, leaving his 1-year-old, 5-seat Knesset party with no one and nothing to hide behind, and they eventually decide to fold and not run to the election at all - "for the good of the country", naturally? Check.
* The ruling party's card-holding members elect in their primaries, a candidate list so wingnutty it makes America's Tea Party look like a bunch of moderates? Check.
* Further to the right, the settler parties find a sleek young hi-tech millionaire to remake their image? Check.
* Israel's Foreign Minister, widely considered a national embarrassment, can single-handedly decide about a dozen of the next Knesset's members. He uses this power to axe 3 of his most loyal lieutenants, because they have caused too much.... embarrassment! And he sends them to tell the press they decided to quit of their own free will? Check.
A vacuous, narcissistic TV talk-show host decides to launch a party of stars and take the political center by storm - only a few years after his late father, a loud-mouth TV talk-show pundit did the exact same thing only to quickly bust his entire bubble-party back into nothingness. And still, the son succeeds mightily in opinion polls - especially among young voters? Check.
* Same talk-show hosts decides to ride the wave of social-justice protests that erupted last year, choosing for his party the slogan "Where's the Money?" - and then populates the top of his candidate list with multi-millionaires? Check.
* Speaking of social-justice protests: after failing to re-launch the movement this summer, two of the most famous activists associated with it still score a major win - placing in high safe places on the Labor party list, and setting perhaps a new record for quickly cashing in on "grassroots-activism" celebrity? Check.
....But with all these amazing circus acts, one party has without question stolen the show.
This party was set up only last week, by Tzipi Livni, whose personal popularity managed to win 28 seats in 2009 for the failed bubble-party of Kadima, but was recently voted out of that party's leadership (she was a very ineffective opposition leader, to put it mildly). She was sitting on the sidelines, rejecting offer after offer from some of the clowns mentioned above.
Then, last week, she struck, launching a candidate list under the fantastic name "The Movement." In a real-life enactment of the football movie "The Replacements", Livni cobbled together a strange list of assorted has-beens and would-bes.
Despite widespread derision in the press, Livni's new list immediately upstaged the talk-show Lapid's version of a centrist party, closing in on 10 seats. And then, only a few hours before the list-submission deadline, Livni dropped her bombshell.
At the last moment, Livni managed to poach none other than MK Amir Peretz, ex-Security Minister, who had led Labor in the 2006 elections, and only a week earlier scored a respectable second place in Labor's party-list primaries, placing him 3rd on the Labor list. On Livni's list, too, Peretz is 3rd, because Livni's 2nd place is reserved Amram Mitzna, who had led the very same Labor in the 2003 elections.
The howls of sanctimonious outrage from Labor and from mainstream pundits notwithstanding, a first snap-poll on Friday already showed "The Movement" gaining to 12 seats.
And about that sanctimony: in 2005, when Peretz upset the venerated Shimon Peres to win the Labor party leadership, and Peres didn't waste a moment to desert the party to then-new Kadima, taking care to say that "this is not my party anymore" (read: a scary Moroccan with a moustache - Peretz - has taken over our beloved Ashkenazi enclave) - the press gave Peres a free pass. A similar free pass has been given to all the wheeling, dealing, and unbelievable betrayal of voters' will that has taken place time after time in recent years. So quit your finger-wagging, please. Not to mention that both Peretz - the first Mizrahi to seriously contend for the premiership in the general elections, and Livni - the first woman to do the same in a contested elections (the late Golda Meir was handed down the PM role by party elders, during Labor's long one-party dominance of Israeli politics) - both Livni and Peretz have bonked their heads painfully against the glass ceiling, a glass ceiling whose existence the Israeli mainstream press largely denies and ignores.
In short, among all choices around the center and center-right of Israel's political map, this Livni list is by far my favorite. Unlike, say, Lapid's party or Kadima, there's no pretense here: this list is openly a bunch of ringers on a renegade crusade. I, of course, would vote much further to the left - except that as an expatriate I cannot vote (which is good, btw, because the number of people holding an Israeli passport yet having almost no clue of the real Israel, is scary).
But leaving personality politics and circus acts aside, Livni and her two ex-Labor lieutenants have an important real political story to tell. And that is the failure of Labor's current leadership, to pose an alternative to Bibi Netanyahu's government on the Palestinian issue.
Labor's current leader, Shelly Yachimovich, came into power on the waves of the 2011 social protests. Social-justice issues were her forte, and she was nicely rewarded (it was Peretz, btw, who helped her into politics in 2006). Fair enough. But ever since then, a year in the leadership, she has staunchly refused to formulate a Palestinian policy that presents a meaningful contrast with Bibi's. She was apparently banking on domestic issues trumping other issues.
Ignoring the Palestinian issue in Israeli politics: bad idea. Doing it as a major party leader running an election campaign: ridiculous. The Cloud Pillar operation on Gaza exposed the idiocy of this (and arguably, that might have been one of the motives). Yachimovich found herself playing the role of cheerleader. No, really. Besides expressing full support to the operation, she focused on issues such as making sure that called-up reserve soldiers retain their employment benefits. And when asked for her views on the actual operation, she very embarrassingly declined to worry her pretty little head with such things. Just for the record, Zehava Gal-On, leader of the moderate-left Meretz party, didn't think that having a uterus disqualifies one from having one's own opinions on war and peace, and courageously led her party to oppose the operation.
This, ultimately, is what pushed two former Labor leaders into Livni's arms. After all, talking about "social justice" and the economy while ignoring Occupation is meaningless, when the entire social structure of Israel is built upon the Occupation economy. Livni, for all her faults, is willing to pose an alternative to the public on this critical issue.
Now, the stage is set for Israeli voters to decide.