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Desperately Seeking Unity By: P. David Hornik
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nearly two weeks since Israel held its legislative elections, the composition of its next government is still a difficult issue. On Friday, President Shimon Peres formally tasked Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu with forming the next Israeli governing coalition. By Monday, Netanyahu was reportedly “more somber than ever” about his chances to put together a broad-based coalition that would be more durable and that would give him more international legitimacy as Israel’s chief policymaker.

Though Netanyahu has the support of a smaller, right-wing coalition of 65 Knesset members (out of 120), he clearly sees that as less desirable than a broad coalition. The rightist alternative, indeed, would be a coalition of the politically incorrect and the demonized.

Take Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, with 27 MKs. Abroad, Likud is synonymous with “hard-line” policies and is regularly condemned as an obstacle to peace. Netanyahu himself remains an intensely demonized figure among the Israeli Left. And the Likud’s largest coalition partner is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) with 15 MKs; Lieberman, because he raises legitimate questions about the loyalty of Israeli Arabs, is now portrayed as a Jörg Haider-like figure abroad and eclipses Netanyahu in demonization both internationally and for the Israeli Left.

Then there are two small religious-nationalist parties, the National Union (4 MKs) and Jewish Home (3). Both of these, and particularly the National Union, are affiliated with the West Bank settlement movement—“West Bank settlers” currently being, of course, among the most negatively charged phrases in the English language.

Rounding out the narrow right-wing coalition would be two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas (11 MKs) and Torah Judaism (5). Traditional-looking, black-clad Jews, they too are no smash hit abroad; and with their penchant for emphasizing sectoral concerns, could prove difficult and obstreperous (especially Shas) coalition partners.

Apart from three anti-Zionist Arab parties that are irrelevant for coalition purposes, that leaves three Jewish parties—centrist (the term is disputable and used for mapping purposes) Kadima with 28 MKs; Center-Left Labor with 13; and far-Left (and also irrelevant) Meretz with 3.

Netanyahu, clearly acutely aware of the problems entailed by the right-wing coalition, met for coalition talks on Monday with Kadima leader and current foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Labor leader and current defense minister Ehud Barak. Though he made them generous offers of cabinet posts for themselves and their respective parties, a consensus of reports says that it failed to sway them.

Barak’s reported reason for declining the offers is simply that Labor, with its poor showing in the elections, belongs in the opposition because that’s where the voters have consigned it. As for Livni, according to the Jerusalem Post, “a source close to Netanyahu [said] their main difference…was whether the coalition guidelines would call for ‘two states for two peoples,’ as Livni wanted, or something more vague, as Netanyahu did.”

Netanyahu, for his part, “somberly” told a meeting of his Likud Party after the failed parleys with Barak and Livni that “Never [has Israel] faced such a state of emergency, with the possible exception of the War of Independence,” stressing the worldwide financial crisis and its effects on Israel, the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza and southern Lebanon, and “Iran’s nuclear armament…hovering over everything.” Claiming that “personal interests have no legitimacy now and must be put aside,” he said that “in view of all these threats, the need for unity grows by the minute…. I refuse to give up. [Unity] is imperative.”

Livni doesn’t see it that way. When it turned out Livni’s Kadima had narrowly defeated Likud by 28-27 in the elections, Livni (despite the Right’s clear preponderance as a bloc) was jubilant and apparently assumed she was going to be prime minister. Her more recent facial expressions and body language suggest that some of her current recalcitrance comes from personal pique. Still, it is also true that as foreign minister she’s been—after having been a Likudnik herself not long ago—particularly ardent about proclaiming the Palestinian-state theme to foreign audiences, and she may now be too wedded to her identity as an internationally approved, “enlightened” Israeli to accept a subsidiary role to the more hawkish Netanyahu.

If so, the irrationality of the insistence on the “two-state” or “progress on peace” theme is striking at a time when Hamas continues to rule Gaza and Fatah leaders Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qureia, and others have repeatedly, over a couple of years’ talks with Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, made demands regarding “refugees” and Jerusalem that no Israeli leader can accept while refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

As Palestinian Media Watch reports, just last week the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority and of Abbas’s Fatah, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, “praised and glorified [a] terrorist who murdered three civilians and seven Israeli soldiers in a 2002 ambush,” calling him “the hero of the Intifada,” and also “praise[d] the Hamas kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as ‘a military action that was successful by any military yardstick.’” But with Livni and like-minded Israeli leaders having by now fully bought into the politically correct U.S.-European distinction between bad-cop Hamas and good-cop Fatah, the empirical evidence that “peace” is now less urgent than the threats stemming from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis means little to them.

Where does this leave Israel’s government? Netanyahu is basically trying to broaden a coalition of disapproved Jews to include relatively approved Jews and thereby gain greater governmental stability and leeway to act. And, despite real gaps in political positions vis-à-vis Kadima and Labor, all the six right-wing parties accept and support his attempt at unity; the resistance comes from the two parties that comparatively are in the Americans’ and Europeans’ good graces.

It has never been easy for Israel to stand alone against the world, and some prefer to toe the line even at a time of existential danger. If, as now seems likely, Kadima and Labor end up in the opposition, hectoring and trying to topple the narrow coalition, it may be good for their continued approval rating but could well be dire for Israel.

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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