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Israel Turns Right—With a Hitch By: P. David Hornik
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 12, 2009

Center-Left voters showed more prudence in the Israeli elections Tuesday than Center-Right voters. Enough of the former switched from Ehud Barak’s Center-Left Labor Party and the smaller left-wing Meretz to enable Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima to beat—possibly—Bibi Netanyahu’s Center-Right Likud by 28 Knesset seats to 27 (out of 120). The still-uncounted soldiers’ and other votes could yet push Likud into a tie or even, just possibly, a lead over Kadima.

But the Center-Left voters’ prudence came at the price of very poor showings by Labor (13 seats) and Meretz (3). As of Wednesday afternoon, Barak and other Laborites were claiming Labor was headed for the opposition benches and wouldn’t join any coalition. The demise of Labor—once the spearhead of Zionism and the party of mythic figures like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Moshe Dayan—correlates with its shift from values of democratic socialism, land settlement, and moderate hawkishness to the peace-at-any-price values of the emergent Israeli chattering class.

The Center-Right voters, for their part, did exactly what Netanyahu pleaded with them not to do in the last phase of the campaign: they divided their votes widely enough—among six parties and particularly Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), which won support by demanding loyalty of Israeli Arabs—to enable Likud’s narrow loss to Kadima.

But with the Center-Right as a bloc now totaling 64 seats to the Center-Left’s 56—and with 12 of those 56 belonging to anti-Zionist Arab parties—it is thought likely that President Shimon Peres will give Netanyahu the nod, rather than Livni, to try and form a coalition. If so, Bibi’s task will be hard but by no means impossible.

The six right-wing parties share a hawkish outlook but little else. Likud and Israel Our Home (15 seats) are mainstream secular parties representing the pragmatic Right, with Israel Our Home—whatever the distortions about it in the international media—also pushing a liberal/anticlerical agenda. National Union (4) and Jewish Home (3) are national-religious parties, the former in particular ideologically committed to the Land of Israel. Shas (11) and Torah Judaism (4) are ultra-religious parties representing sectoral interests.

But while Netanyahu is certain to seek a coalition beyond, and probably not including all of, this sextet, he will—particularly if Labor sticks to its commitment to head for the wilderness—have nowhere to turn but Livni and Kadima. Netanyahu is said to be adamantly opposed to a rotating prime ministership with Livni but willing to offer Kadima a parity of ministerial appointments, including hawkish Shaul Mofaz at defense and Livni herself to continue as foreign minister. Considering that Livni—at least up to the Gaza war when she suddenly morphed into a hawk—is a good deal more dovish than Netanyahu, that too would be problematic; but not impossible in the difficult, unwieldy world of Israeli coalition politics.

The ongoing instability and fragmentation of that world—clearly reconfirmed by Tuesday’s results—leads some to call for a coalition consisting only of larger parties while eschewing the smaller and sectoral ones. Such a coalition—probably comprised of Likud, Kadima, and Israel Our Home (currently totaling 70 seats between them) and possibly also Labor—would, it is claimed, tend to Israel’s most urgent priority: reforming the electoral system. But Netanyahu, who knows Israel has an even more urgent priority—dealing with imminent Iranian nuclearization—is likely to prefer as broad a coalition as possible in the interest of national unity and governmental stability.

Compared to the government elected in 2006, in which the Center-Left bested the Center-Right, the country has shifted emphatically in the latter direction. The three years of the Kadima-led coalition have seen the failed war in Lebanon and the rise of Hamas rule in Gaza. All parts of the country that have suffered rocket attacks from Gaza clearly favored the Right in the voting.

More broadly, Tuesday’s results represent an awakening from the Oslo-era fantasy that the lack of Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza was the Arab-Muslim world’s last remaining issue with Israel. That fantasy was shattered by ongoing rejection in the language of bombs and rockets. In the current perilous reality, Netanyahu’s true task is not just to cobble together a coalition but, in the negotiations, to convince enough faction leaders of the gravity of the hour and the urgent need for national responsibility.

That is likely to include disabusing Kadima of its fantasy that it has won and still has a right to be at the helm or to share it.

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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