Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: Leadership Stakes

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Colin Rubenstein

This month Israelis will begin the potentially convoluted process of selecting a new prime minister – a process that could take as little as a few weeks or as long as several months. It all begins on September 17, when the ruling Kadima party will hold a leadership primary to determine who will succeed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the head of the party. Although four candidates are running, polling indicates that the two main contenders are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

The winner of the primary will then have six weeks to form a new government, whether reconstituting the current governing coalition or forging a new one. If he or she is unable to form a government, President Shimon Peres can either invite another member of Kadima – presumably the second-placed candidate – to try to do so or call for new elections to be held within 90 days.

Alternatively, the winner of the Kadima primary could opt to call for new elections immediately. If that happens, the prime ministerial contest will be a three-way race between Kadima’s new leader, Likud led by Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and Labor, led by current Defence Minister Ehud Barak. In the meantime, Olmert will serve as a “caretaker” prime minister for as long as it takes for a new post-primary or post-election governing coalition to be formed.

Livni is currently favoured to win the Kadima party leadership. A lawyer by training, she is viewed as somewhere between a centrist and a dove in her policy positions. As foreign minister, she has been intimately involved in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on a shelf agreement, and, if she becomes prime minister, is believed to favour a policy of heightened negotiations aimed at establishing a detailed agreement with the Palestinians that addresses all outstanding issues. At the same time, she has been criticised by her opponents as too inexperienced for the prime ministership. Untainted by any hint of corruption, her integrity is viewed as an important asset.

Mofaz is a serious Kadima leadership contender. Compared to Livni’s perceived inexperience, Mofaz is widely respected for his past performance as chief-of-staff of the Israeli Defence Force as well as serving as defence minister under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Mofaz is considered a hawk on defence and security issues, and has been the most vocal of any of the prospective candidates on the potential need for Israeli military force against Iran if international negotiations continue to fail to resolve the ongoing nuclear crisis with that country. Mofaz would be Israel’s first Sephardic prime minister, which could help further reduce the already narrowing distinctions between Sephardic (Jews of Middle East/North African descent) and Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) populations in Israel.

If a new election is called or required, the greatest beneficiary might be Netanyahu, who currently is ahead of either Kadima candidate in most polls. Netanyahu would bring to office his past experience as prime minister, but also the accompanying criticisms of his tenure. He would likely take a more sceptical view of grand agreements with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbours, and has said he will make “reciprocity” in deed, not word, the touchstone of his negotiating strategy. He has also positively bolstered his economic image through reforms enacted when he served as treasurer under Sharon. Netanyahu is the only one of the four serious contenders to be “untouched” by Israel’s much criticised performance in the 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Barak also brings the credibility – and criticisms – of being a former prime minister, and he has been using his current position of defence minister to shore up his case for reclaiming the top spot. According to current polling, however, Barak’s Labor is the least likely to win if an election is called (and he is facing some discontent within his own party as a result.) Therefore, he is more likely to favour continuing Labor’s participation in a coalition government with Kadima if given the chance to do so.

Regardless of who becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he or she will have a great deal on their plate. This includes the aforementioned negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the looming – and potentially existential – threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. In addition, the new prime minister will have to confront the continuing challenges posed by Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip and a Hezbollah which is fast becoming the dominant movement in Lebanon. He or she will also have to decide whether to continue on the Syrian track, recently opened by Olmert in the form of indirect negotiations mediated by the Turks.

It goes without saying that these foreign policy challenges, not to mention managing Israel’s economy and domestic challenges, will require a serious and sober approach by the new prime minister, whoever emerges victorious.

Ongoing domestic reforms should also feature prominently on the agenda. These would include revisiting reform of the electoral system in Israel, which will require strong support to accomplish. Most reform ideas call for at least some MKs to represent specific regional districts rather than be elected on party slates. This change would increase MKs’ accountability to the voters while decreasing the influence of both party powerbrokers and activists, and small sectarian parties

Coming on the heels of personal and political scandals involving Israeli political leaders, it also will be important for the new prime minister to instil a renewed sense of integrity and incorruptibility to Israel’s most senior political offices.

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