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The Maze of Israel's Elections By: Sammy Benoit
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 13, 2009


Those who have relied on the US media for Israeli voting results don’t have an accurate picture of what happened on Election Day. Tzipi Livni did not win the Election---Yet. Neither has Binyamin Netanyahu. Israeli politics are immeasurably more complicated than that. Unlike the United States, in Israel once the election ends the campaign begins.

The final results are:

Party

("Left"/"Right")

Seats

Kadima (Livni)

"Left Wing"

28

Likud (Netanyahu)

"Right Wing"

27

Yisrael Beiteinu (Lieberman)

"Right Wing"

15

Labor (Barak)

"Left Wing"

13

Shas

"Right Wing"

11

United Torah Judaism

"Right Wing"

5

Ichud Leumi (National Union)

"Right Wing"

4

Meretz

"Left Wing"

3

Hadash (Arab/Jewish party)

"Left Wing"

4

Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home)

"Right Wing"

3

Ra'am Ta'al (Arab party)

"Left Wing"

4

Balad (Arab party)

"Left Wing"

3

"Total Right Wing"

65

"Total Left Wing"

55

In the above chart each party is labeled either “Right or Left Wing." That is the way they are labeled in the press, but in reality the classifications are totally artificial. The major parties, Kadima, Labor, and Likud are all well within the moderate spectrum. Even Yisrael Beiteinu, described in the press as a far right party, has elements that appeal to the left, specifically the secular nature of its platform. Yisrael Beiteinu, and indeed most Israeli parties, display support for some degree of territorial compromise.

Livni’s surprise performance was not the result of a Likud decline. Netanyahu’s projected seat count remained stable for two weeks. Kadima’s rise came at the expense of the Labor Party. The most likely reason for the Labor voters migration was the knowledge their party was a distant third coupled with their preference of a Livni-led government to one led by their old rival Netanyahu.

With the tabulation of votes completed, Israel’s President Shimon Peres will now invite a party to form a coalition government. Traditionally, it is the candidate with the most seats, but that is not required by law. Peres will choose the party which, in his judgment, will have the have the easiest time forming a government. Most insiders believe that his choice will be Netanyahu. The chart above shows a 65-55 advantage for the “Right Wing” parties who will likely gravitate toward partnering with Likud. Recent history also comes into play. When Ehud Olmert resigned, Livni was given the opportunity to form a government, yet some in the coalition preferred to take a chance on an election rather than stay in a Livni led coalition. That may also influence Peres’ decision.

Security was the number one issue to Israeli voters. Security as it relates to the Arab Palestinians was not the major issue; most parties had minuscule differences on that matter. The most pressing security issue is Iran. Here too, there was little difference between major parties.

The Iran issue adds the pressure on major candidates to form a broad coalition. A broader coalition is necessary to generate the political legitimacy to attack Iran (if necessary). Broad based support is also desired to stand up to any effort by the Obama administration to impose a peace plan dangerous to Israeli security. Look for Peres to urge the leading parties to form a unity government that would include Labor, Likud and Kadima.

On the other hand, forming government in Israel is a political rather than a rational process. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich would feel very comfortable participating in this process which is a form of legal “pay for play.” Each party, even the small ones expect a healthy package of government programs and cabinet seats as a reward for entering a coalition. Reportedly, Netanyau has already offered Kadima ten cabinet seats to join a Likud-led government.

Until the government is formed, various leaders of major and minor parties will declare they will or will not join a coalition. We have already seen evidence of this in the few days since the election. Labor says announced that it would rather stay on the sidelines; Shas has said it won’t serve with Yisrael Beiteinu who replied that they wouldn’t serve with Shas. Then they changed their minds. Be mindful that very few of those declarations mean anything; it is simply posturing for the best deal negotiation. The “golden rule” that each party knows is, it is better to be part of the government than not (that is the reason the Olmert government lasted so long).

Two parties in a powerful position to negotiate are Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. Each is a natural partner of Likud and each was part of Olmert’s Kadima government. Beiteinu, a secular party and Shas a religious one have domestic policy positions that are at odds with one another. The Labor party, which has held the premiership for over half of Israel’s existence, is now sinking toward minor party status. That said they will join any coalition that allows party leader Ehud Barack to remain as Defense minister.

Shas’ primary concern is entitlements for religious education. Here again precedent is the guide. As part of the Olmert government they promised to resign and bring down the coalition, if ceding parts of Jerusalem was ever discussed in peace talks. According to Livni and the Palestinian side Jerusalem negotiations were held, yet Shas remained in the government. Their loyalty was guaranteed with government programs worth the equivalent of $130 million US dollars. If Shas, a religious party, was willing to sell out the holy city of Jerusalem for the right package they are likely to join any coalition for the perfect deal.

Even though Peres has not announced who gets the first try at forming a government the “horse trading” has started, but it can be a drawn out process (as long as six weeks).

Most likely when all is said and done, the Israeli government will approximate one of the three scenarios below:

* National Unity Government. Likud at the head along with Kadima, Labor and one or more of the “Right Wing” religious parties such as Shas and United Torah. This is the most likely of scenarios.

* Likud-led along with, Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu and some of the smaller parties. This is less likely for a few reasons. Though Lieberman holds a good hand, he is loose cannon. Additionally Lieberman likes to be on center stage, Bibi doesn’t like to share the spotlight, particularly if he is Prime Minister.

* Right Wing Coalition- This scenario is Netanyahu’s worst nightmare. Despite the campaign rhetoric, the Likud leader’s positions have moderated. The "Right-Wing" parties however, flush with victory will be eager impose their agenda. Bibi would be backed into a “Right Wing” corner constantly placating his coalition partners to maintain power

The tradition of Israeli politics is to expect the unexpected. The process has just begun. Fasten your seat belts; it is going to be an interesting few weeks.




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