As German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck once wrote, “Politics is the art of the possible” (Die Politik ist die Kunst des Möglichen). That understanding was certainly on the mind of the Meretz party in Israel this week, as it faced the inevitable dilemma that arises whenever idealism faces realism, or when the demands of one sacred principle threaten to undermine the realization of another. In practical terms, Meretz had to decide whether to push for new elections that seem likely to replace a roughly centrist government led by Ehud Olmert with an adamantly hawkish, right-wing one under would-be Prime Minister and frontrunner Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu of Likud.
Meretz is a party that has always held aloft the banner of good governance, its statement of principles affirming that it will work to, “protect the rule of law … implant values of proper administration and governmental transparency, while guarding moral integrity and eliminating the scourge of corruption”.
It would seem only natural, therefore, that Meretz would now be using all means possible to remove an Israeli Prime Minister who has been the subject of five separate criminal investigations, and who, we have recently learned, has made a habit of receiving (and failing to document) fat, cash-filled envelopes from American “associate”, Morris Talansky.
On the other hand, Meretz is a peace party – indeed, the backbone of Israel’s peace camp – and it is fundamentally committed to the cause of de-occupation and coexistence. Cognizant of the albatross that is Israel’s control of the territories, Meretz promises its constituency to help, “end the occupation, evacuate the settlers and the IDF from the territories, and put Israel back on the right track”.
This being the case, how could Meretz possibly think of toppling a government which, despite its unconscionable support for new settlement construction, has reignited peace talks with the Palestinians (not to mention the Syrians) and has held out the hope of a breakthrough framework agreement by the end of the year? How could Meretz do so when new elections will likely usher in a Netanyahu government that will nip these processes in the bud?
Over the last several months, Meretz has consistently sought the middle ground, advocating that Olmert resign in favor of a colleague from his Kadima party who could hold together the existing government coalition and continue the all-important negotiations. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has not been stained by accusations of malfeasance, would be the leading candidate to fill Olmert’s shoes.
Unfortunately, this ‘third way’ has become increasingly untenable in recent weeks. Though the accusations against Olmert have become more withering and his public support nil, the Prime Minister has stood his ground, insisting that he’s “not a crook” and that he would not resign unless a criminal indictment is filed. According to most analysts, Olmert has been counting on the support of the parties of the center and left, who, he hopes, would be willing to swallow an ostensibly corrupt Prime Minister in order to forestall something worse.
Caught between conflicting values and between its values and the constraints imposed by the rules of politics, Meretz has struggled with the question of whether the peace process can be sanctified above all else.
Now, Meretz seems to have indicated that it cannot. In a decision reached by the Meretz faction in the Knesset, the party’s MKs declared that, “if, during the month of June, Kadima does not set a reasonable date for its party primaries [to select a new party leader], Meretz will bring its proposal to disperse the Knesset to a vote,” in Israel’s parliament.
Or perhaps the party has simply decided to call Olmert’s bluff? In the “game of chicken” so characteristic of Israeli political wrangling, the Prime Minister has been counting on Meretz (and others) to flinch first. Meretz is now saying that it won’t.
Olmert’s Kadima party might have gotten the message. Apparently unwilling to go down in a sinking ship with Olmert, Kadima’s leaders are showing signs that they’re ready to throw their captain overboard, in the hope that a new leader can keep them afloat and repair the hull. Kadima seems likely to prefer a new leader to new elections.
Let’s hope that they follow through in this direction, and that a new and untarnished Kadima leader will stop the growth of settlements, redouble efforts toward peace, and lead the negotiations to a successful conclusion.