Romney's Continent-Crossing Coattails

(AP PHOTO/Nati Harnik)

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu, left, glances at Prime Minister Shimon Peres during a ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem Monday, June 17 1996. Netanyahu is expected to present his new government to the Knesset Monday, and reportedly is shaping a cabinet which will exclude or sideline his rivals in the right-wing Likud party. 

Shimon Peres, just 89 years young, is under pressure "from politicians and ex-generals" to run again for prime minister of Israel against Benjamin Netanyahu, or so say unsourced news reports. Peres, in politics since the time of King David or at least of FDR, denies he'll give up his ceremonial post as Israel's president for another run. Ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert, according to other unreliable reports, awaits the outcome of the U.S. election before deciding whether he'll return to politics in a bid to unite Israel's fragmented center and left and save the country from Netanyahu.

As the American campaign heads toward a cinematic denouement complete with disasters and the possible victory of a reprogrammable robot, the Israeli campaign begins: shorter, lower-budget, but also frightening in its potential outcome. Earlier this month Netanyahu set off the race by setting parliamentary elections for January 22. This week he announced that his Likud Party will run on a joint ticket with Israel Is Our Home, the party of bellicose Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Recent polls agree that the new alliance will win a clear plurality, and will easily be able to join with other parties of the right to give Netanyahu another term.

Then again, Israeli electoral polls are famously imprecise, and Israeli campaigns often volatile. Here's a guide to factors that make the election unpredictable and the stakes high:

The Alliance

The compact between Lieberman and Netanyahu creates a powerful national front, grimly confrontative toward the outside world and toward domestic opponents.

This is one more stage in the Likud's radicalization. Over a decade and a half, prominent politicians have steadily left the party as they have broken with its aspiration for permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank. The largest exodus came before the 2006 election with the creation of the centrist Kadima party. Meanwhile, Lieberman's party has grown on a barely veiled platform of disenfranchising Arab citizens and drastically increasing the power of the prime minister.

Electorally, though, the whole could be less than the sum of the parts: The joint ticket may get fewer votes than the two parties would separately. Lieberman could scare away centrist voters who have stayed loyal to the Likud till now. And there's an ethnic dimension: The Likud draws much of its support from mizrahim—Jews with Middle Eastern roots—who tend toward a relaxed respect of religious tradition. Lieberman's strongest base is among Russian-speaking immigrants, often extremely secular. If the label "party of pork," tossed out by a Likud activist, sticks to the alliance, it will lose Likud voters. If Lieberman abandons his secular platform, his voters may desert.

Issue vacuum

Netanyahu has succeeded in getting peace with the Palestinians and the future of the occupied territories off the top of the Israel agenda, possibly for the first time since Israel conquered the West Bank. He has convinced voters that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, even as the Palestinian Authority has worked with Israel to stop terror attacks. Ironically, quiet and despair about peace makes it harder for Netanyahu to run as the man who's tough on terror and won't give up territory. The prime minister has also erased the Palestinian issue by talking non-stop about Iran—but running on a platform of "I'll go to war" is risky.

Despite suspicion of polls, let's take note of one published this week: 20 percent of respondents said that defense and foreign policy were the most important issues for them, while 33 percent put economic policy at the top. (A plurality of 44 percent indecisively said "both.") But the major economic event of Netanyahu's current term was last year's mass protests against inequality, high prices, and ties between the business oligarchy and the government. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich is rebuilding her party as the voice of popular anger, and former protest leaders are vying for places on the Labor ticket.

Missing Candidate

Yacimovich's appeal is nonetheless limited, since she doesn't have the ministerial or military experience that Israelis expect in a potential prime minister. And she's competing against both Kadima and a new centrist party led by celebrity ex-journalist Yair Lapid. Those divisions make it look as if Netanyahu is the only candidate for prime minister, with everyone else competing for a place in his coalition.

Hence the fantasy about Peres, and the more realistic reports that either Olmert or Tzipi Livni, Kadima's candidate in 2009, could return to politics. Both would place Netanyahu's failure to reach a two-state agreement at the center of their campaigns. In July, Olmert was acquitted on two major corruption charges, and convicted on a third, lesser charge. His problem is that he's still on trial in a separate bribery case, a detail that might prove a bit poisonous in a campaign. Livni's challenge is to convince centrists to unite behind her rather than dividing them further by starting yet another party.

The America Factor

There's some logic in the rumor that Olmert is waiting for the U.S. election before jumping in. If President Obama is reelected, Netanyahu will take fire for openly supporting Mitt Romney and damaging U.S.-Israel relations. Olmert would argue that he can work easily with Obama, especially since they have a common interest in peace negotiations. If Romney wins next week, Netanyahu will have a fawning friend in the White House and an electoral asset at home.

And if the polls are on target, if Netanyahu is on his way to an easy victory, the American election is all the more important to what happens in Israel after January 22. As Obama has shown by firmly rejecting Netanyahu's pressure for war with Iran, he is capable of acting as a check on the prime minister's most disastrous impulses. Romney has made clear he'd do nothing of the kind. The cliff-hanger finale of the campaign in America could be the first act in a tense Israeli drama. 

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