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Israel at the Polls By: P. David Hornik
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, February 10, 2009

As Israelis go to the polls today in the country’s 18th parliamentary election, the main story over the last couple of weeks has been the rapidly declining lead of former prime minister Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud Party over Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party. The implications of that story for the future course of Israeli politics are indeed far-reaching.

Netanyahu’s decline is attributed mainly to the rise of a third party, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home). Right-wing like Likud, Israel Our Home has appealed to many Jewish Israelis exasperated with the provocations of Israeli Arabs. That exasperation peaked during the recent Gaza war, when Israeli Jews looked on as Israeli Arabs held pro-Hamas demonstrations. Against this background, Lieberman’s campaign promise to make Israeli citizenship conditional on loyalty to the country has gained popularity.

Netanyahu’s depressed poll numbers also may be attributed to right-wing voters’ disgruntlement over his avowals to form a national-unity government with centrist Kadima and/or the center-Left Labor Party of current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In addition, Netanyahu has ruffled right-wing feathers with his known preference for keeping Barak on as defense minister. Keenly aware of the threat posed by Iran, Netanyahu is believed to view Barak’s good chemistry with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates as an important asset.

Even with these recent dents to his popularity, Netanyahu remains the frontrunner. An aggregate of the latest polls shows Likud still leading with 26 Knesset seats (out of 120) to Kadima’s 23, Israel Our Home next at 18 and Labor trailing at 16. The two right-wing parties’ clear edge is further enhanced when the various smaller parties are added to the mix, with the center-Right bloc of Likud, Israel Our Home, and right-wing/religious satellite parties totaling 65-70 mandates to 50-55 for the center-Left bloc led by Kadima and Labor.

And even that understates the center-Right’s strength. The 50-55 total for the rival bloc includes about 10 seats for Arab parties that are avowedly anti-Zionist and would not be included in any governing coalition. Add to that the fact that about a third of the Kadima MKs can be described as right-leaning, and it’s clear that the Israeli electorate now tends strongly to the Right of the spectrum, averse or at least skeptical of the once-dominant “land-for-peace” paradigm in dealing with hostile neighbors like the Palestinians and Syria.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s public appeals up to Election Day have shown him to be nervous and worried, and he has good reasons to be so. There is still the small possibility that Livni/Kadima will defeat him by a seat or two. Were that to occur, Livni would still find it difficult to form a coalition. Netanyahu rules out joining a Livni-led coalition; some Labor members rule out joining a coalition that includes Lieberman; that leaves a mess of small parties with crisscrossing animosities. Still, even if Livni fails and Netanyahu gets a chance to lead, a loss to Livni/Kadima would be a blow to Netanyahu/Likud’s prestige and political potency.

The larger possibility is that, thanks to Lieberman and Israel Our Home, Likud will win by only a small plurality and will have to form a coalition government—Israel’s 32nd in 60 years. But such a broad “unity” coalition will be wobbly, subject to extortionate pressures from all sides, and doomed yet again to a short shelf life.

It’s against these possibilities that Netanyahu has been warning right-wing voters, urging them to forgo Israel Our Home and the smaller parties and to stay with the Likud. Though he makes a sound case, the best he can hope for at this point—unless the polls are way off—is, indeed, for Likud to edge out Livni/Kadima by a few seats and to become the leading, but by no means dominant, coalition-forming party.

Thus, the implications of this election for Israeli politics are already plain to see. The mishap of this election campaign is the rise of Lieberman/Israel Our Home. Though an intense patriot and a Russian immigrant with some fresh perspectives, Lieberman can hardly vie with Netanyahu’s intelligence, diplomatic sophistication, and proven ability in both the defense and economic spheres. Lieberman’s party includes some attractive candidates but, again, cannot compare with Likud’s current impressive lineup that includes former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, former science minister Benny Begin, security expert Yuval Steinitz, and other figures of acumen and integrity. Lieberman’s successful stoking of popular fear and resentment toward Israeli Arabs—attitudes that have some basis but which also require nuance and balance—comes at the expense, for some voters, of a more sober assessment of the challenges Israel faces and which politician is best suited to meet them.

That power will be distributed among other parties is no consolation. Particularly after the current Kadima and Labor-led government’s latest mishap – a war against Hamas that has left the terrorist organization with the capacity to fire rockets and to smuggle in arms – Netanyahu’s call to include these parties in the next government causes understandable frustration. His strongest defense is that the country needs maximal unity to face the Iranian threat. His claims about the need to defeat Hamas, or to retain the Golan Heights and a united Jerusalem, are harder to reconcile with keeping these parties—which favor phony ceasefires and capitulations—at the helm of the nation.

Given a parliamentary system with an inherent centrifugal tendency, it has never been easy to achieve governmental stability in Israel. But it has never been more necessary, especially given the Iranian and other threats; the worldwide economic downturn; and a new U.S. administration whose policy toward Israel and the Middle East is still uncertain. It would be heartening to think that this time stability will trump fractiousness in the Israeli parliament. Unfortunately, this latest election campaign has instilled no such confidence.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/. He can be reached at pdavidh2001@yahoo.com.

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