With Senator Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential race, the stakes have been raised for Israel's February 10 general elections.
Whatever the Obama administration's position on Israel may be, it will not be more supportive of the country than the Bush administration has been. And over the past year, the supportive Bush administration has decided not to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and not to support an Israeli effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
If Israel's next prime minister intends to prevent Teheran from acquiring the means to implement its stated aim of destroying Israel, he or she must be prepared to stand up to America. Indeed, the greatest diplomatic challenge he or she will likely face will be standing up to a popular new President Obama, supported by large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and the overwhelming majority of American Jewish voters.
Over the past few days, the two contenders for the premiership – Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu – have demonstrated their starkly contrasting views of how to deal with a potentially hostile administration in Washington.
Reacting to Obama's electoral victory on Wednesday, Livni made clear that from her perspective, the best way to deal with an unfriendly White House is to preemptively surrender Israel's national interests.
In her words, Israel's election results "must reflect the country's interest in advancing the peace process, otherwise the international community, headed by the US, will try and push us in this direction."
For their part, Netanyahu and Likud have shown that if defending Israel's national interests requires a confrontation with Washington, they will not shy away from it. Last week, Netanyahu surrogate MK Yuval Steinitz informed both US presidential campaigns that in the event that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledges to surrender the Golan Heights to Syria, a Likud-led government will not respect his commitment.
Livni understands that she cannot win the election by preaching preemptive surrender, and so she and her colleagues are ardently seeking to change the subject. They recognize that for Livni to win, she must persuade the public that she is not the hard-core leftist she has governed as for the past five years, but a centrist. To accomplish this goal, she is seeking to distinguish herself from Labor and Meretz while still maintaining her leftist support base. And she is trying to convince voters that Likud is not a credible alternative.
Distinguishing herself from Labor and Meretz while keeping faith with the Left has been tricky for Livni, because it requires her to constantly contradict herself. She must make clear that she supports an Israeli retreat to the 1949 armistice lines and abdicates responsibility for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons to the US and Europe, while appearing to reject the 1949 armistice lines and accepting that given the stakes, Israel is ultimately responsible for preventing Iran from going nuclear.
Unable to renounce policies she herself has advanced and indeed invented, Livni has opted simply to refuse to disclose her positions to the public. She refuses to tell us what she has offered the Palestinians in her negotiations with Ahmed Qurei, or how she intends to deal with Syria and Iran, claiming unconvincingly that telling us what she stands for would damage Israel's national interests.
Much to Livni's dismay, the public is already certain that she is a leftist. Consequently, her greatest challenge is convincing centrists who lean right that they cannot support Likud. To persuade them that Likud is unworthy, she seeks to define Likud as a party of extremists, hell-bent on destroying Israel's reputation in Europe and the US and on killing all hope of peace.
TO DEMONIZE Likud, Livni and her colleagues operate on two tracks simultaneously.
First and most importantly, they have instigated violent confrontations with the hardcore fringe of the ideological Right. These confrontations serve to convince the public that the far-right fringe constitutes a threat to the state.
Second, they seek to create a public perception of Likud as the sponsor of the hardcore fringe. By accomplishing this they hope to persuade the public that Likud itself is a threat to the country.
On October 25 the government ordered the police and the IDF to carry out a surprise, middle-of-the-night expulsion of well-known right-wing hard-liner Noam Federman and his family from their home in Kiryat Arba, and to demolish their home. According to eyewitness accounts, the police used excessive violence against the surprised couple and their nine children.
As could have been anticipated, the Federmans and their hot-headed, radical friends were enraged by the unprovoked onslaught. And as expected, Federman's supporters reacted by making offensive statements about the police and the IDF.
The government pounced on these statements in a bid to castigate the far right, (of which Federman and his supporters comprise a small faction), as the greatest threat facing the country. Cabinet ministers were warned that these hard-line activists may try to assassinate them, attack IDF soldiers, or commit terror attacks against Arabs. Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced he will enact draconian measures against the far right in a bid to strip its activists of their civil rights and demoralize their followers. (In the meantime, the torching of a yeshiva in Acre and a synagogue in Ramle by Israeli Arabs went unnoted by the cabinet.)
Presenting Federman and his colleagues as a strategic threat to the country will not suffice to bring victory to Livni. She must also link Likud and its leader to these far-right "enemies of the people."
To this end, Livni and her colleagues accuse Likud of rejecting "peace." Likud's extremism, Livni argues, is demonstrated by the fact that "extremists" such as former science minister Bennie Begin and former construction and housing minister Effi Eitam are joining its ranks.
Livni's strategy of projecting herself as a moderate by criminalizing the Right and claiming that there is no distinction between Likud and far-right activists is a reenactment of Olmert's strategy for winning the 2006 general elections.
In February 2006 Olmert sought to define the Right in general and Likud specifically as a coalition of extremists by provoking violence between security forces and the far-right when he ordered the destruction of a number of homes in Amona. Hundreds of policemen and border guards were deployed to Amona where they essentially carried out a pogrom against hundreds of children and teenagers who were there to defend the homes from destruction.
Initially, the events at Amona were misrepresented to the public as an example of right-wing fanaticism and violence against security personnel. Due to the media's open collusion with Olmert, it was only after the elections that the public learned the full extent of the police's premeditated brutality. In the meantime, Olmert invented a convenient right-wing bogeyman with which to scare the public and demonize Likud.
Olmert's Amona strategy, which Livni seeks to implement today, advances the political fortunes of the Left in two ways.
First, it directly promotes the fiction that Israel's chief enemy is the Right and so induces the public to feel uncomfortable supporting Likud.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Amona strategy deflects public attention from Israel's real enemies – Iran and its Palestinian, Lebanese and Syria proxies – against which Kadima has taken no effective action. In 2006, the government's pogrom at Amona removed Hamas's electoral victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Authority elections from the top of the news. Hamas's electoral triumph had laid bare the folly of Israel's withdra
wal from Gaza the previous summer and demonstrated that Kadima's entire electoral platform, based on repeating that withdrawal in Judea and Samaria, was a recipe for disaster and war.
Today, with banner headlines decrying the right-wing menace filling the front pages of the papers, news of Hamas's transformation of Gaza into a new Hizbullah-stan, replete with bunkers built with concrete supplied by Israel, is relegated to the back pages.
IN 2006, Likud was in no position to counter the Amona strategy. It had just sustained a near-mortal blow when Ariel Sharon bolted the party to form Kadima. But now the tables have turned. Today it is Kadima that is in shambles. Sharon has been forgotten. Olmert resigned in disgrace. Livni failed to form a government.
Today, Likud can discredit Livni's self-characterizations as a moderate by pointing to her far-left record as foreign minister. Netanyahu can reject her characterization of Likud as a far-right party by showcasing leftists like Uzi Dayan, Dan Meridor and Assaf Hefetz who are flocking to the party together with rightists like Bennie Begin and Effi Eitam. Likud, he can say credibly, is not a fringe party – but a big-tent center-right governing party that welcomes all patriotic Israelis.
If Livni's Amona strategy fails her, she will be forced to discuss her plans to preemptively surrender to the US, the Palestinians, Syria and Iran. And for Livni, a debate about her actual plans and current policies is a recipe for defeat.
In certain respects, Livni's embrace of Olmert's Amona strategy toward the Right and her attempt to hide her far-left policies while presenting herself as a new sort of clean politician and engine of political renewal, echoes the strategy that Obama employed with such success in his bid for the White House. Like Obama, Livni wishes to convince the public to support her by not telling us who she is and what she intends to do, sufficing instead with her claim to be different from the other guys.
It is far from clear that Livni will be able to pull off an Obama-like victory. She lacks his charisma. Unlike Obama, she has a public record of far-left governance and policy failure going into the election. And unlike Sen. John McCain, Israelis trust Netanyahu more than they trust Livni to protect the country's economy.
Moreover, Obama benefited from the public support that the Democratic Party enjoyed after eight years of Republican control of the White House. In contrast, between its failed leadership in the war with Hizbullah and the corruption probes and criminal convictions of its leaders, Livni's Kadima is the discredited incumbent party. But still, all is not lost for Livni.
Like Obama, she enjoys the full support of the media in her bid for power. In the past, media collusion has repeatedly sufficed to bring leftists posing as centrists to power.
With all that is at stake in February's elections, it must be hoped that Livni's Obama strategy will fail her. Facing Iran on the one hand and a potentially hostile Obama administration on the other, Israel requires a leader like Netanyahu who understands that if preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons means butting heads with Obama, so be it.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.