Israel’s Political Vacuum

The nation is looking for a leader and an agenda. It can’t seem to find either.

Shaul Mofaz (left) and Tzipi Livni listen as Ehud Olmert speaks

To the American spectator, the parallels with Israel seem obvious. The departing leader is unpopular and scarred by an unsuccessful war. For the time being, the focus is on the primaries in which two candidates are vying for the leadership of the Kadima Party. One is a woman, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The other is the “dark-skinned candidate,” Transportation Minister and former Defense Minister and military chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, a member of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora, none of whose members has ever been prime minister. 

But Livni is no Hillary Clinton—she’s the more dovish of the two candidates, and she would not be Israel’s first woman prime minister; Golda Meir played that role almost 40 years ago. And Mofaz is no Barack Obama. He has a lot of experience, is more hawkish, and the group of Sephardic Jews he belongs to—Mofaz was born in Iran—is not a minority in Israel. Still, this political fight will be all about the rules of the Kadima primary: Livni is more popular with the general public, but Mofaz has the edge when it comes to mastering the game of political deal-making.

When one of them wins the primaries in September, he or she will have the opportunity to form a coalition without elections—but most Israelis assume such a coalition couldn’t survive for long. As tired as they might be, Israelis want elections. They want to reshuffle the cards yet again. There’s a problem, though: The candidates—from the other parties as well as Kadima—aren’t all that promising. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor Party, was prime minister in the late ‘90s and has never managed to recover his popularity with the public. Likud’s hawkish leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, was prime minister before Barak. Netanyahu is currently ahead in the polls, but half the country seems to shudder whenever his name comes up. Both Barak and Netanyahu were kicked out of office by unhappy voters way before their terms were scheduled to expire.

The early departure of Ehud Olmert—a result of his mounting political and legal troubles—is another sign of Israel’s leadership crisis, which I wrote about at the end of 2005, when his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, collapsed. The younger generation of leaders, “first Netanyahu and then … Ehud Barak were so disappointing, such juvenile prime ministers, that they sent Israeli voters rushing back to older, more experienced leaders—the men who were already there when the state of Israel was born”—men like Sharon. But after Sharon’s collapse, “when the shift to a younger generation is no longer a luxury, it’s not … clear where the leaders will come from.”

Olmert was the accidental successor who just happened to be there when Sharon slipped off stage. Olmert inspired no awe—but whoever succeeds him will have the same problem. Livni, Mofaz, Netanyahu, Barak—none will have the benefit of personal dominance; all will find it difficult to win over voters. One of them will become prime minister—but only because the country has to have someone playing that role.

Lacking the aura of natural authority, whoever is elected will have to find an achievable agenda in order to survive. Olmert supposedly had one when he was elected: He promised to continue Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. A worthy cause, but there was one problem: It was a goal out of tune with reality. The conditions for an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, or the Syrians for that matter, were not in place. Olmert kept trying, but Israelis looked on with dismay. They thought, perhaps rightly, that the prime minister was playing politics, that his talks with the Arabs were aimed at diverting attention from the failed war he launched and from his own legal problems.

But the agenda Olmert’s potential successors represent does not make voters confident. Arguably, there’s close to a consensus about the solutions (or lack thereof) for the problems Israel now faces and very little difference among them: All will continue peace talks, but none believes that talks can lead to a lasting solution; all will emphasize the challenge posed to the region by Iran; all will struggle with the apparently unsolvable problem of Hamas’ rule in Gaza; all understand that the international community failed to follow through and contain the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Rhetorical differences aside, all four candidates will take Israel in approximately the same direction—or will be dragged to similar conclusions by the conditions on the ground.

Returning to the Democratic primary parallel, the Israeli election will be more about personality than agenda. That’s ironic, since a dominant personality is what Israelis are having trouble finding.