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Sun. February 05, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Gerald Steinberg

International Affairs Forum: Tzipi Livni failed in her bid last month to form a governing coalition after securing the Kadima leadership in a contest in September. Why wasn't she able to do so?

Prof. Gerald Steinberg: The chances of her succeeding were always very small. The coalition had a number of different partners with conflicting interests, and the Shas party, one of the religious parties, had a greater interest in going to elections than rejoining this fragile coalition under the terms that existed before. It was almost impossible for her to have succeeded, so the criticism of her is unjustified it was an impossible mission.

Israel has a very fragmented and decentralized political system and Livni's own party had less than a quarter of all the seats in the Knesset. Coalitions are by definition quite weak and smaller parties are always looking for an advantage. In this case the Shas party saw its advantage in going to elections. Shas has a fixed core constituency - they won't lose very much by going to elections and they might in fact gain a few seats. And, more importantly, after elections, even without additional seats, their bargaining position might be improved.

IA-Forum: A general election has now been called for Feb. 10. What do you make of chances Kadima's chances at the polls?

Prof. Gerald Steinberg: Kadima is a very new party it was actually formed by Ariel Sharon, and he was the dominant figure behind it and he kept it together. After his stroke, it was able to have a relatively successful campaign and emerge as the largest party. But this in part was out of emotional reasons many people voted Kadima in order to honor Sharon. But also, Kadima is viewed as a consensus-based and pragmatic party, and that has increased the appeal to Israeli voters.

The question is whether Livni has a strong enough personality - enough charisma, presence, experience - to provide the glue to keep what is still a fragmented organization, with a developing political platform of pragmatism, together. She did quite well in the process after Olmert's resignation [as Kadima leader] and within the party she won the internal contests. She has become quite a visible presence on the Israeli political scene. But it depends how she does when she is challenged by [Benjamin] Nethanyahu and the Likud party in particular. She's got a fighting chance -if no mistakes are made and the individuals in Kadima stand together rather than fight each other, and there is a question about that, then they should be able to at least maintain a significant part of their percentage of the electorate.

IA-Forum: What do you think will be the big issues on Israeli voters' minds?

Prof. Gerald Steinberg: The elections were forced because of the issue of corruption, and I think that all the candidates will talk about that. I think voters are tired of the way politics have been run in Israel for many years, in which people that really are not the "best and the brightest" manipulate the system and often get rich off of it. So corruption will be an important issue.

And the economy will be as an important an issue in Israel as it is in the United States, in the sense that the fears of economic collapse are as strong here as they are elsewhere, although the Israeli economy so far has weathered a lot of the storm. Voters are going to worry about who will manage the economy, there is the issue of staying within the budget, avoiding inflation, unemployment, distribution of income, etc. I think we will see a lot of those issues debated.

At the same time, the ex-military leaders including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (The Labor Party leader) will highlight dangers from Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah and who can handle the threats best. I think there will be talk about Iran's nuclear program, the existential threat, and the possibility of military action. From his perspective, Livni, who has no experience in this area, will appear weak.

IA-Forum: Do you think Livni will be able to stay on as leader even if Kadima loses the general election?

Prof. Gerald Steinberg: It's too early to tell if she's going to be a long term political force and figure or if she'll fade. The odds are that she'll last. She's younger than most of the other leaders, and she has some accomplishments already. She came up relatively quickly, she did a more than competent job, many Israelis believe, as foreign minister, so that even if her party does not do well in elections, it doesn't look right now as if anyone is capable of challenging her seriously. Part of the problem in Israeli politics is that it is very difficult for someone to come up through the ranks. She did, but in that sense it will be difficult for other challengers to do so.

It's interesting if you look round at the heads of other parties that they have all been around for 20 or 30 years. Ehud Barak was prime minister, Nethanyahu was prime minister over 10 years ago and they're still leading their parties. The small parties are more or less run by the same people as well. So Kadima is a different sort of political process because it is so new, and this is an asset in the eyes of many Israeli voters. For these reasons, I think she'll be around for a little while.

IA-Forum: How much of a shift if in policies would you expect if Likud come out on top in February?

Prof. Gerald Steinberg: First, a lot of people in Kadima were in the Likud for many years, and economic issues were not their reason for joining this new party. So it really doesn't make much difference if it is Labor or Likud or Kadima who runs the government in economic terms - the gaps are quite small.

On foreign policy, in a certain sense Israel is in a post-ideological era, and that was the raison d'etre behind the formation of Kadima. Sharon decided to try and disengage the messianic peace plans, on one side, and the messianic "greater Israel" plans on the other, are no longer taken seriously by the vast majority of the Israeli population. So the political leaders are fighting for the middle.

These major parties - Labor, Kadima and Likud - account for about 60 percent of the vote, and there will be some swings here - some voters will go for the more defense-related party and candidate, others will go for someone considered better at negotiations, for example Livni. But we're talking swing voters of maybe 10, 15, 20 percent. The other 40 percent of the population - the ultra-orthodox, the religious, the Arab parties - they are basically fixed. They will redistribute themselves among the smaller parties, but at the end the structure will be very similar.

Professor Gerald Steinberg is the Political Studies Department Chair at Bar Ilan University, the founder of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, and the Executive Director of NGO Monitor.

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