February 2009

Benjamin Netanyahu, the man designated to be Israel’s next prime minister, was due to hold talks today with his chief political rival, Tzipi Livni of Kadima, in a bid to persuade her to join a unity government and avert the danger of international isolation. The Likud leader has been making strenuous efforts to woo Ms Livni – or find a “common path”, as he calls it – since he was tapped to form the government by Shimon Peres, the president, a week ago.

It is not entirely surprising that Amos Gilad, an Israeli general who once sued his own government for “irreversible mental damage” caused by his role in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has publicly courted controversy again. On Monday, Ehud Olmert, Israel’s outgoing prime minister, suspended Mr Gilad as his envoy to Egypt, responsible for negotiating a ceasefire with Hamas, after Mr Gilad called the prime minister’s truce conditions “insane”. The move threatened to unleash a political storm in Israel.

When Israel’s 18th parliament opens today, there will be only one Arab woman among its intake of legislators. Haneen Zoubi has made history: although she is not the first Arab woman to enter the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, she is the first to be elected for an Arab party. Sitting in her home in Nazareth, the effective capital of Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens, she is dismissive of her predecessors, two women elected on behalf of Zionist parties.

Apprehension is mounting in Israel over the damage that its “special relationship” with Washington will suffer if, as expected, the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, puts together a far-right government in the coming weeks. A rift with US officials is already opening over the kingmaker role of Avigdor Lieberman, who leads Yisrael Beiteinu, an anti-Arab party, and is being widely touted as a senior cabinet minister in the incoming government.

The near-tie in parliamentary seats between the centrist Kadima party and the right-wing Likud is evidence of a dramatic lurch rightward by the Israeli electorate this week. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni won a wafer-thin victory after the final results were released yesterday because traditional left-wing voters defected to her from Meretz and the once-dominant Labor party. Likewise Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party failed to muster the necessary votes to ward off Ms Livni’s challenge because traditional Likud supporters drifted into the camp of the far-right.

Elias Khoury, a 33-year-old architect from the village of Ibilin in Galilee, has been a lifelong supporter of the Communist Democratic Front, the only joint Arab-Jewish party represented in the Israeli parliament. No longer. Tomorrow, when Israelis head to the polls to elect their next government, Mr Khoury – one of the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens – will be staying home rather than casting a vote. “After the attack on Gaza, I am sure there will never be two states here. It’s going to be either a Jewish state with no Arabs, or an Arab state with no Jews.”

The Israeli government has moved quickly to quash protests over the appointment of the army’s senior adviser on international law to a teaching post at Tel Aviv University. Col Pnina Sharvit-Baruch is thought to have provided legal cover for war crimes during the recent Gaza offensive. Government officials fear that recent media revelations relating to Col Sharvit-Baruch’s role in the Gaza operation may assist human rights groups seeking to bring Israeli soldiers to trial abroad.

Extremist rabbis and their followers, bent on waging holy war against the Palestinians, are taking over the Israeli army by stealth, according to critics. In a process one military historian has termed the rapid “theologisation” of the Israeli army, there are now entire units of religious combat soldiers, many of them based in West Bank settlements. They answer to hardline rabbis who call for the establishment of a Greater Israel that includes the occupied Palestinian territories.