Doves Playing Chicken

Just to be clear, if that’s the word, there is a little glitch in Israeli law that creates a difference between a prime minister “resigning” and “stepping aside”—and helps explain, on the one hand, the parliamentary game of chicken being played between Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Barak and, on the other, the opposition to Barak’s moves by his own most dovish Labor ministers.

If a prime minister resigns, or if the government loses a vote of confidence, the government automatically becomes “transitional,” ministers may not resign from it, and the Knesset has 90 days (well, depending on the timing of the summer recess) to pass a law mandating a date for new elections, which would then have to be held within six months. If Olmert did resign, we would almost certainly have new elections by, say, late next winter. Polls show pretty clearly that Netanyahu’s Likud will win, given the grim public mood. As I’ve written here before, Bibi would bring us a government dominated by Likud’s hardest-liners, back-to-the-Land-of-Israel cultists, ultraOrthodox claustrophiles, Russian reactionaries and oligarchs, and General-opportunists.

But if a prime minister is incapacitated in some way, because of health or (in Olmert’s case) legal troubles, he or she may just step aside, and the leading government party would be able to appoint (or elect) a replacement. Then, the existing coalition may serve out its full term, in this case, at least until March of 2010. If Olmert stepped aside, then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would likely take over and most believe she and Barak would be able to create a stable coalition for two years more. Olmert’s government has initiated a series of peace moves, which the public is cautiously supportive of—anyway, much more so than supportive of Olmert himself. He is in no way indispensable to continuing the peace process as a whole. Livni and Barak would probably have a better chance of selling any deal to an always skeptical Israeli public.

With this in mind, consider what Olmert is doing. If indicted, he says, he will resign—not step aside, resign. Barak just announced that, if Olmert does not step aside, then he will instruct the Labor Party to support an impending Knesset vote of no confidence. Olmert has responded, nah-nah, do that and he’ll fire any minister who votes for the bill—thereby bringing about the loss of his majority—in effect, resign, not step aside.

What all of this amounts to is that Olmert is threatening his own coalition, and even the judicial élite—formally neutral, but generally people who favor the government’s centrism and peace initiatives—with a Netanyahu victory. If he were serious about leading the country to peace, and not just leading the country for a few more months, he would go, but not resign. The only supporters Olmert has left are politicians who really, really fear Bibi (that is, Labor’s leading doves), or politicians who really, really fear that any new election will wipe them out.

Barak, for his part, may have no choice but to push the pedal to the metal; he knows he will have to face Bibi sooner or later. He beat him once in 1999, and if Tzipi Livni wins in Kadima, the two might eke out a victory. Anyway, Barak knows that most people want political moderation. He also knows they won’t vote for a politician who seems afraid of them. Like Olmert.