Israel’s political merry-go-round

A week ago I wrapped up a speaking tour in the United States during which I “forecast” that things in Israel, after a long lull, were about to become very interesting. How true!

While America was busy electing its first black president, politics in Israel was undergoing such a flurry of activity that it would make your head spin.

Shortly after Yossi Beilin announced his retirement from Meretz, fellow party veteran Ran Cohen announced he was following suit. Both men bowed out as they faced the ignominious fate of losing an internal election for spots on the next Knesset list.

For Meretz, these departures are something of a call to arms for the young guard, who must now step forward and save the party, which has shrunk from 12 to six seats (and is not even guaranteed those in February’s election), from falling into total irrelevance.

For the rest of the country, though, the image of Beilin and Cohen riding into the sunset, after being so strongly identified with the country’s most left-wing party for so long, is a somewhat sad one. It used to be that you knew who represented whom, and what. Nowadays, most Israelis would be hard-pressed to name more than a third of the 120 Knesset members, or to match half of them with the parties they represent.

Of course, folks like Yisrael Hasson and Yariv Oppenheimer aren’t making things any easier.

Hasson jumped ship from Yisrael Beiteinu, a party of Russian immigrants that is for the most part quite right-wing, to Kadima, which sprung from the main right-wing party Likud three years ago and has since become a center-left party.

“For years, the Left has said I’m Right and the Right has said I’m Left. I’m dyslexic when it comes to matters of Left and Right,” Hasson said in explaining his switch.

Oppenheimer, the head of the fiercely anti-settlement group Peace Now, would seemingly find a natural home in Meretz – yet he is running for a spot on the Knesset list of Labor, which is more mildly opposed to Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders and in any case is more concerned with broader socio-economic issues.

Nachman Shai, who remains popular after calmly assuaging public fears during the first Gulf War in his capacity as chief IDF spokesman, also joined Kadima. His appeal should help the party, as should his long-standing connections to politicians and tomajor Jewish organizations abroad.

Then there’s the case of the vanishing dimension. Well, Meimad, which means dimension in Hebrew, may be vanishing.

The party, composed of doves from the religious Zionist camp, was never large, but it gained a certain degree of prominence when it merged with Ehud Barak’s Labor Party in 1999. Since then it has withered, with party leader Michael Melchior – the former chief rabbi of Denmark and of Norway – being its only elected official.

Now Meimad’s agreement with Labor is running out, and is unlikely to be renewed. Talks are under way for a possible move to Kadima, which would be happy for any boost it could receive. But if those talks do not pan out, Meimad may simply disappear: It is unlikely to pass the minimum electoral threshold and survive the next elections on its own.

On the other side of the aisle, so to speak, Likud is in the midst of a renaissance of sorts. First Bennie Begin announced his return to the party. Begin, son of the late (but still highly revered) Menachem Begin, left Binyamin Netanyahu’s government in protest in 1997 and slipped out of public life altogether in 1999, heading back to his scientific work at the national geoseismic institute. Begin, who is regarded as a man of integrity rather than power brokering, will bring a limited amount of influence to the party but add a significant amount of cache.

Also returning to Likud is Dan Meridor, another “prince” of politics (son of pioneering leaders of the Jewish state) who left the party during Netanyahu’s reign and another politician regarded as polished and upright. Whereas Begin remains a staunchly conservative Likudnik in his father’s mold, though, Meridor, who left to help found the ill-fated Center Party, should help Likud widen its appeal, at least a little.

Joining Likud is quite a popular move these days. Former party veteran Uzi Landau is said to be contemplating a return, and he’d better hurry or there won’t be any room left. Former IDF deputy chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan and former Israel Police inspector-general Assaf Hefetz have already joined the party, and former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, who was removed by prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz (who just happened to be Ya’alon’s immediate predecessor as chief of General Staff) because of his disapproval of the Gaza disengagement plan has been rumored for months to be on the cusp of joining the party.

(A note: With the decline in popularity of Labor’s ex-generals, and in light of Mofaz’s failure to inspire in Kadima, Likud will definitely have the “security” market cornered come February. I suspect, however, that it’ll need to make a strong case that it can stimulate the country’s economy during the tough times ahead, as well as deliver several other positive messages worth reviewing in the near future…)

Even Pnina Rosenbloom, the beauty queen-turned-make-up baroness who enjoyed a brief tenure in office with Likud, is coming back. The wave of returnees makes it seem like, at any minute, Jake and Elwood are going to jump up and declare, “We’re putting the band back together!”

Finally, after being largely ignored for two decades, Ethiopian immigrants are making a big splash in politics with no fewer than eight all-Ethiopian parties running for local council elections to be held this week.

Two Ethiopians have recently entered the Knesset — Shlomo Mula with Kadima and Rabbi Mazur Beyana with Shas — after other party members stepped down. But this represents the first foray into the stormy waters of regional politics for parties specifically aimed at the Ethiopian community.

The parties are independent of one another, though they will focus on similar issues and themes — social and economic hardship, for example — that ought to resonate not only among the Ethiopian residents of the periphery towns that so many in the Ethiopian immigrant community call home, but among their neighbors, who are also struggling, as well. It will be interesting to see how much these parties will be able to present the Ethiopian sector as an electoral force to be reckoned with. So, too, will it be intriguing to see whether their influence can extend beyond their own ethnic group — something that Russian immigrant- and Sephardi-based parties, for example, have failed to do.

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