Like a Hole in the Head

If Labor leaders thought that leaving the unity government and triggering elections would boost public support for the party, they apparently will be be disappointed.


(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on January 21, 2003.)

It’s impossible to be rid of the feeling that the country needs these elections like a hole in the head. If Labor leaders thought that leaving the unity government and triggering elections would boost public support for the party, they apparently will be be disappointed.

Labor could have stayed in the government and waited for the original election date. If Lieberman and the National Union, by refusing to join the Sharon government after Labor had abandoned it, expected they would increase their strength in these elections and force the establishment of a government without Labor, they also may be in for a disappointment.

Most disappointed of all is the prime minister. Instead of coaxing Lieberman and his colleagues into the coalition to replace Labor, Ariel Sharon chose early elections, hoping the Likud would be strengthened and his freedom of movement in the next government would grow. He’s the one who really needed these elections like a hole in the head. He could have waited another year.

If the public expected a more stable government after the elections, apparently it will also be disappointed. People assumed canceling the direct election law and returning to a pure parliamentary system was going to strengthen Likud and Labor and reduce the bargaining abilities of the smaller parties, leading to a more stable government.

Indeed, at the start of the campaign, the polls showed that was likely to happen. They predicted a dramatic rise for the Likud from 19 to 40 or more seats. Labor didn’t see a similar gain, and it appeared that Sharon, with 40 MKs from the Likud behind him, could easily establish a stable government, with or without Labor, that would be able to manage the affairs of state efficiently for a whole four years. Now, according to the latest polls, the future of the next government appears much more shaky.

Enough has been said about the reasons for the decline in the Likud’s standings in the polls. But why didn’t Labor rise? The answer is clear. Most of the public has turned its back on the Oslo process and its architects – something that was already clear in Sharon’s landslide two years ago. And two years of terror and economic collapse did not bring a change in the minds of most voters who apparently do not believe that concessions to Yasser Arafat will bring an end to Palestinian violence.

So, who benefited from the situation created by the flight from Likud and the stagnation of Labor? Not, apparently, Lieberman or Sarid – but an odd couple, Shas and Shinui. They fought against the cancelation of the direct election law, convinced that the second ballot slip worked in their favor. There too the initial polls showed a steep decline in support for Shas. However, Shinui continues to benefit from the void, and Shas it seems is also rehabilitating its position – at least partially.

The political future after the elections does not exactly look rosy right now. Instead of a Knesset with two large parties, it looks like a Knesset with a few medium-sized parties, a sure-fire formula for instability. Even canceling the direct election law wasn’t enough to bring back political stability.

Yet those who are disappointed should perhaps pause to imagine what these elections might look like if the voters again had to cast two ballots. Despite everything, one ballot is probably still preferable.

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