As members of the Labor, Likud and Shinui parties defected to join Ariel Sharon’s new centrist Kadima Party this week, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz accused the prime minister of acting as though it were "the season for trading soccer players, where everyone moves from one side to another."
One of the biggest defections to Kadima (that of Israelís elder statesman and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres from the Labor Party) was anticipated Wednesday.
Peres had called Labor home for much of the last 60 years, but he had bolted the party in 1965 when Israel’s founding father and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, for whom Peres had served as an aide, formed the Rafi Party. That coalition lasted only a few years before merging with Labor.
At the age of 82, Peres "is still maneuvering around," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
"Peres is consistent in wanting to be where the action is," he said. "He still attracts attention."
The jockeying was touched off by Sharon’s Nov. 21 defection from Likud, a party he helped found in 1973, to form Kadima, the Hebrew word for "forward."
Sharon, who will be 78 when the next general election is held March 28, said he left Likud because he was convinced that dissidents within the party who opposed his Gaza withdrawal last summer would continue to tie his hands as he tried to capitalize on the opportunities for peace with the Palestinians created by the pullout.
Kadima’s platform released this week calls for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank that would be demilitarized and free of terrorism, and continued Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and the three main Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank (Ariel, 25 miles east of Tel Aviv; Maale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem; and Gush Etzion, between Jerusalem and Hebron on the south), which are situated on land that is about 10 percent of the West Bank.
As people moved from party to party, Steinberg observed that their actions were often calculated for the long term. He pointed out, for instance, that Professor Avishay Braverman, the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, had been in talks with Sharon before deciding to join forces with Peretz. And Professor Uriel Reichman announced Tuesday that he was leaving his position as board chairman of the secular Shinui Party to join Kadima. Polls show Shinui, which now has 15 seats, dropping to between five and seven seats.
"These guys are lining themselves up for succession," Steinberg explained. "The assumption is that Peretz will lose badly and that the Labor Party will then be redone. And Kadima will be wide open [in the next election], so people are maneuvering for the big stakes in the next round four years from now."
Opinion polls released last Friday said Labor would win between 26 and 28 seats; it now has 21.
David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, said that whoever joins the Kadima Party is doing so just to be with Sharon.
"In the past when you had Labor and Likud as equal partners, a lot of policy questions were solved by finding an equidistant point between the two sides," Makovsky said. "But this is Ariel Sharon’s party, and anyone joining is joining Sharon on his own terms."
The polls last week showed Kadima winning 32 to 34 Knesset seats.
Steinberg said there is "just as much maneuvering" going on in Likud. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to win its Dec. 19 primary vote against as many as five other candidates.
However, should Netanyahu not garner 40 percent of the vote, he would face a runoff with his closest rival on Dec. 23. Forces opposed to Netanyahu could line up behind the challenger and cause an upset.
Another scenario has Netanyahu winning the primary and his party suffering a stunning defeat in the general election.
Likud now has 40 seats in the Knesset, but polls released last week showed the party winning no more than 13 in the next election. Such an outcome would be seen as a severe blow to the party and compel Netanyahu to resign as chairman or be forced out, according to analysts.
The party then would be led by the candidate who finished second in the primary.
But Makovsky hastened to point out that in Israel, nothing in politics is final.
"It’s not like when [Michael] Dukakis loses [the presidency] he’s out," he said. "In the Israeli system it is never really over. Therefore, you have to be careful about making long-term predictions."
Naomi Blumenthal, one of the Likud dissidents who opposed the Gaza withdrawal, told The Jewish Week that she believed that one of the Likud candidates, Uzi Landau, was losing support. But Steinberg said he believes Landau has a real chance because as the leader of the dissidents he speaks for the "true believers" in Likud’s right-wing ideology.
Steinberg also said it is not clear how much "grassroots support" there is for Landau’s main challengers, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Both are close to Sharon (Sharon even tried to convince Mofaz to join him in Kadima) and both are thought to be willing to join Sharon as part of his coalition government after the election. Such a prospect might not sit well with hardcore Likud supporters.
Blumenthal said "the math looks terrible" now for Likud but is hoping for improvement after the primary and as the election draws near.
"We hope that we will have many more [Knesset seats] because many Likud people will not join Sharon’s party, otherwise we will not have a right wing in Israel," she said.
Among the other well-known Israelis to jump into the political ring this week was television talk-show host and newswoman Shelly Yehimovich, who was recruited with much fanfare by Peretz.
Although Braverman was brought on board to increase middle-class support for Peretz, whose socialist-leaning policies rattled the financial markets, Yachimovich brings star power. She has had highly rated interview programs on Army Radio and Israel Radio, was the host of the weekly "Meet the Press" program and is a regular commentator on Channel 2’s Friday night news roundup.
"For the first time Labor is a social-democratic alternative to this economic right, which has caused critical injury," she told Israel Radio.
Peretz, who will turn 54 before Election Day, is also reportedly wooing back into Labor politics the daughter of slain Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, and attorney Yuval Elbashan, a prominent social activist and friend of Peretz who heads the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s law clinic.
It is widely expected that Peretz will unite his Labor Party with Sharon’s Kadima after the election to form a new government that Shinui might also join.
The speculation is that Peretz would become the finance minister in order to make the economic changes he wants to deal with the poverty crisis in Israel; 30 percent of all children live below the poverty line, according to recent reports.
There is even some speculation that Braverman would be tapped as the next foreign minister.
The wild card in the election is what the Palestinians will do between now and Election Day. There could be terrorist attacks in Israel or, if Palestinian legislative elections are held as scheduled Jan. 25, Hamas could get one-third or more of the vote. Hamas still has not changed its covenant calling for the destruction of the State of Israel.
"Clearly the events of one election have an impact on the other election," Makovsky said. "It could move Israel to the right.
"This has been the pattern in Israel until now," he said. "When the bombs go off, Israel moves to the right. And the more successful Sharon is in keeping an environment of relative calm, the more Peretz will be able to launch his critique about economic disparity."