Of Politics and Water

Senior Editor Mandy Katz reports from Israel…

A water crisis notwithstanding, tourists are having fun up here in the Kineret, Israel’s name for the Sea of Galilee and its environs. While they might shake their heads at super-long “beaches” where the inland sea once lapped, and might fret over the much more worrisome possibility of pumps’ going dry, they don’t seem particularly concerned about the impending national elections.

Not all tourists here can vote, of course, as they’re a multinational lot. In the national parks, you do hear a lot of Hebrew, as in the verdant spring-fed pools of Tel Dan. The tamer “Gan Yardan” (or Jordan River Garden) park also centers on flowing water, but diverted into masonry channels and pools; around shaded picnic tables, sometimes set right in the shallow streams, multi-generational Arab clans with boomboxes fire up grills, cool watermelons in the water, and watch their children splash. Meanwhile, on sun-baked roads overlooking the Galilee’s depleted waters, German, French, Japanese and English are some of the languages coursing through tour bus microphones, as Christian pilgrims make the rounds of sites commemorating the multiplying of loaves and fishes, Christ’s visitation to Saint Peter and the Sermon on the Mount.

Back in the country’s center, though, and in the political news, vacation’s over. Israelis, not generally a chipper lot, approach the fall elections with little joy over any of the candidates. Their finely tailored, ethically challenged current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in July agreed to step aside after letting Kadima choose new leadership – though he could still be around a while, depending on how things play out.

Olmert’s constituents might be happy, if you can call it that, to see his back, but enthusiasm for his potential successors is as low as Galilee water levels. The season starts September 17 with a vote to select Olmert’s successor as head of the centrist Kadima party, founded in 2005 as an alternative to leftie Labor and right-wing Likud led by former Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As prime minister, Sharon’s hawk bona fides had enabled him to pull off the Nixon-in-China move of the Gaza disengagement. But Kadima’s had to do take leadership without Sharon, since he was sidelined by a calamitous stroke in early 2006.


Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni
, who boasts an impressive background in law and intelligence (including four years in the Mossad), broke with her parents’ militant Zionism to rise in Kadima as Sharon’s protégé. She’s campaigning to be only the second female prime minister of Israel, but perhaps it’s a sign of the country’s blasé acceptance of women in leadership that no one seems to notice. Livni’s not a hugger, and her campaign appearances offer not a hint of the “you go, girl” solidarity that buoyed Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and after.

Livni’s main Kadima opponent is former IDF chief and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. While courting the religious right directly (he met with Shas leaders this week), he’s also preparing for the ballot by dispensing patronage goodies from his current perch as transport minister. For instance, if you take advantage of dropping airfares between Tel Aviv and Kiev – where you need to go if you want to see the tomb of Hasidic sage Rav Nachman of Bretslav – thank God and pull the lever for Mofaz in September, since he just opened up the route to competition.

Whoever wins Kadima will have 45 days to form a government. While the current Cabinet appears to support Livni, we had sodas Wednesday with a friend in the foreign ministry who says Mofaz – thanks to his patronage largesse – stands a better chance of winning. But neither candidate will likely manage to form a coalition, my friend says, so Kadima’s chief will go up against Likud and its longtime, lately very popular leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. That, my friend says, is when Kadima might regret its decision to allow its 60,000 followers dual membership in other parties. In 2006, the policy meant Kadima ate Likud’s lunch; this time, it might go the other way.

As the timetables play out, if Netanyahu prevails, then Olmert stays in office at least into March 2009. Let’s hope the Kineret has gotten some replenishing rains by then.

—Mandy Katz


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