The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.
There will be two elections on the line when Obama and Romney debate foreign affairs tonight, though to understand the second, the one in Israel, you have to stretch your imagination more or less the way Ehud Olmert has been stretching his in recent days.
Olmert thinks Netanyahu has been a disaster, because the endless occupation has been a disaster; and as long as Abbas maintains his tenuous hold on power, Olmert thinks he and Abbas can reach a formula to end it. He is not afraid—so a very-reliable-senior-source-close-to-Olmert told me—to take the “garbage that will be thrown”; he knows, given his close brush with prison, and the continuing skepticism about his career given his “breach of trust” conviction, that he is not the most pristine challenger. He is prepared to fight if it comes to a fight. The real question is, can anyone make a run against Netanyahu and win?
The polls right now do not inspire confidence. Netanyahu’s Likud is now projected to win the greatest number of Knesset seats in the election, a plurality of around 28 out of 120, and his “natural partners” in any foreseeable coalition—the Mizrahi-Orthodox Shas, Lieberman’s Russo-nationalist-Yisrael Beiteinu, the Judean-settler parties, the Haredi parties, etc.—get to something north of 65. The liberal and secular parties, Labor, Kadima, Yair Lapid’s new list, etc., along with the Arab parties, poll around 55. Shaul Mofaz’s leadership of Kadima has imploded, and nobody on the center-left seems positioned to organize a coalition.
But now is not January. And here is where the American election comes in. Most who vote for Likud—and the other parties for that matter—do so out of habit and identity; I’ve written often about the unusually tribal nature of Israel’s electorate. But some—we can’t be sure how many, especially given the number of younger people entering the rolls—are backing Netanyahu because they are taking some big things of granted:
One, that the “neighborhood” is tough and Israel needs a “strong” leader; two, that even if territorial compromise is preferable, there is no Palestinian partner, and, anyway, Iran is the more urgent challenge just now; three, that the settlers and the Haredim may well be ripping off the state, and economic inequalities are bad news, but taking extreme rightists into government is the price one has to pay to solve one and two; and, four, that Netanyahu has held things together by wrapping—or getting AIPAC, Eric Cantor, etc., to wrap—Washington around Jerusalem’s finger.
This bundle unravels, in other words, if Obama is reelected—and comes into office with the mojo he will have to have brought to climax to get himself reelected. Olmert knows, and so do the pundits monitoring his every heartbeat just now, that Netanyahu’s position is vulnerable if, and only if, his Greater Israel policies are perceived to be a drag on American interests and an incitement of its diplomatic anger. One can see the friction developing already with Netanyahu’s resistance to the Obama administration’s anticipation of direct negotiations with Iran.
Which brings me back to Olmert and his (and our) rather public agonizing about whether he’ll return to the political fray. Actually, it seems unlikely that he will jump into the race, though it is hard to see who else can make a plausible case to occupy the prime minister’s job. Shelly Yachimovitch, the Labor leader, has refused to engage on the occupation in any depth and often seems more complacent about the Palestinians than she is about the cost of cottage cheese. Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, and others are all taking about pooling their forces, but behind whom, exactly?
Still, if Obama is reelected, begins talks with Iran, and reasserts American diplomatic support for reasonable Palestinian demands—as he did in January 2009—the atmospherics around Israel’s election will change completely. Washington’s backing, you see, is the Mandate of Heaven in Jerusalem. It enables Israel to cope with the region, Iran, economic stability, and is even the cultural outlet for secularists living surrounded by religious zealots. Good relations with Washington symbolize Global Israel, the rival good (if not the antidote to) Greater Israel. The only thing an Israeli prime minister may not be—at least, not for long—is persona non-grata in the White House.
And this, everybody knows, is exactly what Netanyahu is destined to become as the head of the rightist coalition he’s lead the past four years and, in effect, as an ally of Congressional Republicans. In this atmosphere, it is possible that Yachimovitch will find her voice; or someone new from the defense establishment—former Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, or former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan (who is recovering from a liver transplant)—will reassure voters that a center-left coalition can be counted on to produce an alpha animal for “the neighborhood” even with Netanyahu gone.
Israel’s election, in other words, would have a different narrative, as the political consultants say, a structural crisis which the incumbent seems the cause of rather than the solution for. In that case, a vacuum can suck a new leader into power. Then again, that is the danger in the American election, too, and precisely what will take Netanyahu off the hook.