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Israel Election Update — 22 March 1999

OK, I’m finally ready to issue forecasts with 60 days to go. This is tough; I have changed my stands quite a few times this month in my own private drafts but this is my best attempt to rise above the shifting sands of this election campaign that has yet to truly take shape.

Basic Info: There are 3 candidates for prime minister — incumbent Bibi Netanyahu, Labor party opposition leader Ehud Barak and centrist party head Yitzhak Mordechai. Elections are held 17 May; if no candidate gets 51%, a runoff among the top 2 is held 1 June. Voters vote for parliament on the 17th separately from their vote for prime minister. 61 seats in parliament are needed to have a majority.

1. Information out of Israel is inconsistent and somewhat useless. Enough minds will be made up in the last week of the campaign and even inside the voting booth to make a difference so the only thing one can do is to predict what these people will do at the very end. Polls are suspect as they tend to be wrong and favorably represent the candidate that paid the pollster. Each of the 3 major firms in Israel is attached to a candidate. Also, people lie. It is not fashionable today to say you are for Mordechai and, depending on which poll you read, he is either gaining or losing ground. Polls will continue to underestimate Mordechai’s support. It is still too early to tell how Mordechai’s party will do. The press keeps knocking it but I am told there is more substance within than meets the eye. I do know that Bibi polls very well among Russian immigrants and this is a sure cushion of 100,000 votes but overall he is losing ground and I believe he will indeed get his butt kicked at the end. There are tensions between him and his party, problems deciding on a message, and smart politicians such as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert are distancing themselves from him and his campaign. Remember though that he has built-in advantages which he will not lose (ie: ultra-religious and russian votes) and this is why it is hard to fathom him losing. But he will. Remember that Bibi won by a hairbreadth last time and the Labor Party was overconfident and lost a race they could have won. This time they are taking no chances. All stops are being pulled out by people in the US and in Israel to ensure a victory. Meanwhile, the Right is divided and complacent, and the people who strenuously backed Bibi last time are only half-heartedly with him this time. There are few true believers in his camp.

2. Arabs will vote in Rounds 1 and 2 and will not sit this one out even though they will be promised the moon by Shas if they do. They will vote for Barak or Mordechai but not Bibi. Arab votes may decide the election but I think it will not come down to that. The Palestinians tend to prefer Mordechai but many if not most will vote Barak or whichever of the two they think will win.

3. Barak will steadily gain support, particularly at the end. He currently polls near or ahead of Bibi, but within the margin of error of polls. He is more talented than Mordechai and more substantial (meaning credible) as a prime minister, even if Mordechai is better liked. People will want this quality in the end. The media keeps harping away at this point and I expect it will resonate in the end.

Following are the wildcard scenarios that cause Mordechai to do unexpectedly well and even win. These cannot be predicted this far in advance but just might happen (ie: with 30% probability):

3a. During the next 2 months, Mordechai breaks the 20% barrier in the polls. Once he does, momentum kicks in and he moves up to 30%. Emotion leads a good number of people to vote for Mordechai, particularly if Barak looks strong just before Round 1 and people from the center-right vote for Mordechai as a counterweight to Barak (remember that 60% of Mordechai’s voters are ex- Likdnicks). These people might prefer Bibi but they don’t want Barak.

3b. Here’s the other side of the coin. If it looks like Barak is not very strong going into Round 1, lots of Barak’s voters will vote for Mordechai because they know that only Mordechai has an excellent chance of beating Bibi in Round 2.

4. This last point of uncertainty is a real wildcard for Barak and it could cut both ways. I suggest that Barak could win Round 1 with 51% if he would make a deal with Mordechai giving him the defense ministry and the two agree to switch posts at the end of 2 years, meaning that Mordechai becomes prime minister in years 3 and 4. This would ensure the government has incentive to last 4 years and Mordechai’s voters could vote Barak and still feel they are getting 2 for the price of 1 and the security that Mordechai has 2 more years to learn the ropes before becoming head of state. Mordechai’s party would still run separately and bring a dozen seats that would otherwise go to other parties, both religious and rightwing. It is a stab at Barak’s ambition but if he wins in Round 1 it will be worth it not having to bargain his way through Round 2 and he will have a strong government that will last 4 years and can make real decisions. Too bad this scheme is illegal because the prime minister is elected directly. Oh well. If nothing else, it points to an incentive for Barak to make a deal with Mordechai as long as Barak is not sure he can win 51% in Round 1. I believe that under the gun the two of them will cooperate and do whatever is necessary to ensure Bibi does not get by both of them.

5. Aryeh Deri of Shas (a crucial Sefardic Jewish swing party worth a dozen seats) is hedging his bets and will not act strongly against Barak or Mordechai. He sees Bibi is a potential loser. So far, to all public appearances, his party is backing Bibi. A good number of Arabs will vote for the Shas party in Round 1 because that party presently controls the interior ministry and gives them much money. If Barak wins, Shas will be out though and the Arabs will have to think about this when they vote for prime minister (and their leaders will be urging them to vote Bibi out). At the time of this writing, Deri has just been convicted but not sentenced. It is too early to tell how much he and his party will be discredited and its ability to deliver the goods affected. I think he will be discredited somewhat but his party will not be affected simply because they offer too many goodies to too many people. As long as that is not endangered, his conviction should not matter.

6. Bibi will never go for the gutteral with Barak because if he does Barak will let it be known that Bibi was thrown out of his commando unit because he was not a good commando. Barak should know since he was his commander.

7. I personally don’t care who wins as long as Bibi doesn’t. I’m not crazy about either Mordechai or Barak and neither of them are terribly innovative. Mordechai is best viz. the Palestinians and Barak is best viz. the Syrians. Mordechai is likely to surround himself with good advisors and to listen to them; Barak is likely to be a conceited loner who doesn’t listen and thinks he knows best but he does have proven administrative ability. [All in all, another Rabin.] Bibi is however a flawed personality who is a disaster for the country and it is Priority One that he be ousted. The only ones that have a true interest in Bibi’s victory are Hamas and some arm-chair ideologues both in the US and in Israel who prefer to sit on empty hilltops outside Jerusalem declaring victory while the Roman Legion builds ramps around them. Bibi’s supporters truly think that his deception and manipulation is fooling the world and that the Israelis are gaining strategically under his stewardship. On every level — economic, political and strategic — the country and its leaders are losing the respect of its allies and enemies and is suffering real losses and growing existential threats from far away. Bibi’s policies are the cause, not the cure. The propaganda of progress (ie: Arab concessions, U.S. strategic defense understandings) are all lies. The damage, not least between Israel and America and American Jewry, will become irreparable without a 180 degree shift. If he wins, anyone working in the foreign ministry should find a new career. The prospect of another Bibi term is unthinkable to me. Will enough Israelis realize this? Perhaps if Clinton tells them so. He is certainly hinting. I think the Israelis will get the message.

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