By the time Barack Obama wraps up this week’s whirlwind tour of Israel, he will undoubtedly have heard all sorts of wise things from all sorts of wise men (and women). As is well known, we have no shortage of them here.
But try as he may, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States may find it a bit difficult to figure out just who is in charge here, or more to the point, who he’ll be dealing with if he moves into the White House next January.
And so, as a guy who’s spent his share of time among the movers and shakers in Jerusalem, I’d like to offer our distinguished visitor a pointer or two about Israel’s who’s who.
First, be nice to Ehud Olmert. He just might be around in a couple of months. (Who would’ve thought he’d still be around today?) But under no circumstances should Obama give him any kind of envelope, even if all that’s in it is a birthday card. We’re kind of sensitive about such packages right about now.
As for those who’ve smelled blood and are now circling around Olmert, waiting to pounce — the other leaders of his own Kadima party — keep an eye out on Shaul Mofaz. He used to be the military’s chief of staff, which in Israel means he’s got as good a chance as any at running the country, and even if he doesn’t make it to the top, the transportation minister still talks the war talk as good as any.
Then there’s the other Kadima leader who’s turned on Olmert, Tzipi Livni. True, the foreign minister is the most popular politician in Israel, mostly because she’s perceived as being squeaky clean, an honest politician (forgive the oxymoron) in a country fed up with corruption scandals. But the American president-in-waiting ought to think twice before venturing out alone with her onto the balcony of whichever high-rise hotel he’ll be staying at; she is, after all, a former Mossad agent.
When it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu, who would most likely become prime minister if elections were held today, it’s actually quite simple. Obama won’t have to do or say a thing; Bibi will do all the talking.
The same goes for Ehud Barak. The leader of the Labor Party will treat his senatorial visitor to long lectures, although his English is unfortunately not quite as good as the silver-tongued Bibi’s. And he has a tendency to be obscure, especially when he starts off by saying, “Let me make it crystal clear.”
Now as far as how these charming individuals actually make it to the top office in the land, let alone what they do once they are there, Obama ought not be surprised if all the machinations don’t seem to make any sense.
Let’s say that, as expected, Livni wins the Kadima primary in September. She’ll probably keep her party in a national unity government with Barak’s Labor, in order to avoid a general election that Netanyahu stands a pretty good chance of winning. Once they’ve teamed up they’ll then do everything they can to weaken each other; after all, another election could always be right around the corner. But so long as they need to box out Bibi, they’ll stick it out.
If, on the other hand, general elections are indeed called, things will be, well, actually, much the same. Livni, Barak, Bibi and everyone else will go after each other like savages. Then, the minute the elections are over, they’ll sit down and form a coalition government with each other. And, of course, continue to undermine each other.
They’re quite good at it, in fact. Just this past week, Labor supported a no-confidence vote against the governing coalition — which, along with Kadima, it leads. Did Olmert fire them for sabotaging the coalition? Of course not; he’s too weak now, and they know it.
Obama, if he wins the presidency, might find the recently deposed Republican majority resistant to all that change you can believe in. For the next Israeli prime minister, that’s an easy day at the office. More often than not, the head of the Israeli government can hardly govern at all. He spends 99% of the time trying to survive, and the remaining 1% being investigated by the police.
Just a few days in Israel, I imagine, are hardly enough for Obama to make sense of the circus that passes for politics here. Come to think of it, he could spend a whole lot more time here and still not quite figure it all out.
Better, I’d think, that he spend his time on the campaign trail trying to unravel this mystery: If Israeli politics is such a mess, then how is it that the Israeli economy is booming, Israeli culture is thriving and the people here are, generally speaking, pretty damn happy.
Uri Dromi was chief spokesman for the Israeli government under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.