Even by the standards of Middle Eastern politics, it has been a tumultuous week. Former Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai has been engaged in a ferocious war of words after being sacked by his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the other side of the River Jordan, King Hussein announced that he was replacing his brother, Prince Hassan, as heir to the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom and appointing his son Prince Abdullah to the post. Both moves have long-term consequences for the Middle East and the viability of the peace process.
No doubt Israelis expected a bitter campaign, but few anticipated that it would reach this white-hot intensity so quickly. With voting scheduled for May, there was time for rivalries to simmer before they boiled over. Instead, the chief protagonists wasted no time in going on the offensive.
Last weekend, Mr. Netanyahu fired Mr. Mordechai for “organizing a conspiracy to topple the government in which he was serving.” Technically the charges were correct, if not overdramatized: The defense minister was meeting with the prime minister’s rivals in a bid to get the best possible deal for jumping ship. Mr. Mordechai responded by calling his former boss a liar, an enemy of peace and a man held captive by extremists. He then announced that he was joining a new centrist party and pledged to provide the country with new leadership. Mr. Netanyahu branded the new group “a bunch of losers.” Hopefully, the debate will pick up from here.
Since that inglorious beginning, the campaign’s battle lines have become clearer. Mr. Mordechai was chosen to lead the new party and Mr. Netanyahu was re-elected to head the Likud ticket. The third rival is Mr. Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor Party. Mr. Netanyahu has reasons to go on the offensive early. The new party has been formed by high-profile defectors from Likud and a popular, newly retired army general, all of whom could cut into the prime minister’s base of support. Mr. Mordechai is a Sephardic Jew, which makes him the first prime ministerial candidate from the group that represents a majority of Israeli voters. One opinion poll showed that he could take about one-third of the votes cast for Mr. Netanyahu in the last election. That is cause for concern given the razor-thin margin that vaulted Mr. Netanyahu into the prime minister’s office in 1996.
Still, never count Mr. Netanyahu out. He is a survivor who has mastered the art of politics. While some see Mr. Mordechai poaching the prime minister’s supporters, others see his natural constituency in Labor’s pool of voters. He could divide the center-left vote, while the prime minister maintains the support of the Orthodox and hard-right. Mr. Netanyahu still talks tough and appeals to Israelis concerned about security.
In addition, Mr. Netanyahu enjoys the advantages of incumbency, which he has already begun to exploit. Last week, he announced new budget-straining social programs designed to woo voters. He also revealed that Israel has been conducting secret talks over its involvement in Lebanon. A redeployment or withdrawal of Israeli forces from its “security zone” in southern Lebanon would blunt Mr. Mordechai’s charge that the prime minister is incapable of moving the peace process forward. The peace process promises to be at the heart of the Israeli campaign. But two developments could restrain any future government. The first is the vote by the Israeli Parliament to require any withdrawal from the Golan Heights, also claimed by Syria, to a popular referendum. That will limit the freedom of any Cabinet in making a deal, but it need not be a complete obstacle to progress.
The second factor is developments in Jordan. King Hussein has been a fixture of Middle East politics, a reliable — although quiet — ally of Israel and a voice of moderation in the region. But he has cancer and his health is deteriorating. His son, newly appointed as regent, and his brother, recently ousted as heir, are unknown quantities, but one thing is certain: Neither commands the respect of the Jordanian people as does the king.
Prince Abdullah, his son, is head of the Special Forces, and his appointment is designed to ensure the military’s support for the dynasty. He is also married to a Palestinian, which should help shore up another vital political constituency. But the new appointment will not end the palace intrigues that the king said spurred him to act.
Reportedly, King Hussein does not have long to live. No matter how rigorous his preparations, his death will herald the end of an era in Middle East politics. His sober, reasoned voice will be missed, no matter who wins the Israeli election in May.
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