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Israel sees a lurch to the Right

The National – 13 February 2009

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, voting for Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The one certainty of the outcome, according to Neve Gordon, a political scientist at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, is that the Right is in the ascendant. “The results clearly testify to the fact that a large majority of the elected politicians are against an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on the two-state solution.”

In the coming days, Shimon Peres, the president, will tap the party leader most likely to establish a stable government. Ostensibly Mr Netanyahu, wearing the Right’s mantle, appears better placed than Ms Livni, despite having only 27 to her 28 seats.

But in reality both must court the mid-size parties to stand a chance of forming a government, and in the fractious atmosphere of Israeli politics that will be no easy matter.

Top of the list to woo has been Mr Lieberman, widely seen as kingmaker. It is hard to imagine any arrangement that does not include his Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Ms Livni cannot pass the threshold of 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-member parliament without drawing in 13 seats from Labor as well as Mr Lieberman’s 15 mandates and the seats of one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties.

Few observers believe such a coalition can be constructed. Most in the battered Labor party want to sit on the opposition benches while they rebuild the party, and would certainly object to joining Yisraeli Beiteinu. Their power-hungry leader, Ehud Barak, would probably tear apart his party if he tried to join either a Kadima or Likud government.

Ms Livni, meanwhile, has been clutching at a straw: that she and Mr Lieberman share some common political ground. Both appear to want a two-state solution offering minimal concessions to the Palestinians, both are passionately secular and both are enthusiastic about centralising political power, possibly through Israel’s reform into a presidential system.

Nonetheless, Mr Lieberman’s agenda is more openly anti-Arab than Ms Livni’s and ultimately he may have to answer to his voters, who expect a right-wing government.

Mr Netanyahu can pass the 61-seat threshold only if he calls on Yisrael Beiteinu and the 11 seats of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, as well as a further 12 from smaller far-right and religious parties.

His chief problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas are more implacable enemies than natural allies. During the campaign, Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Ovadia, even equated Mr Lieberman with Satan.

The latter’s “sin” is that he wants to end a monopoly on marriage ceremonies fiercely guarded by the rabbis. It is a plank of his platform he cannot easily discard. He draws heavy support from the one million so-called Russians who left in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Many are of questionable Jewishness and have been denied the chance to marry in Israel by the rabbinate.

Three other factors are likely to weigh on Mr Netanyahu’s mind.

First, there is a long and not always harmonious history between himself and Mr Lieberman. During Mr Netanyahu’s premiership in the late 1990s, Mr Lieberman was both head of his private office and director-general of the Likud party.

Privately Mr Netanyahu is known to regard his protégé as dangerously ambitious. Mr Lieberman is already being touted as the country’s next prime minister but one, a role he would like to see become more presidential – and, some would say, dictatorial.

Second, the formation of what will be effectively a coalition of the far-right, in which Mr Lieberman would be all too visible, would isolate Mr Netanyahu internationally and probably set him on a collision course with the new administration in Washington.

And third, a lengthy police inquiry into Mr Lieberman’s shady business dealings is reaching a climax. According to well-placed sources, the police have established a watertight case of corruption. “If Lieberman is charged, his party will be finished. It’s a one-man show,” said Dr Gordon, the political scientist.

In the circumstances, the natural solution for both Mr Netanyahu and Ms Livni might be to set aside their differences and establish a unity government, possibly with Yisrael Beiteinu as the junior partner.

The inclusion of Kadima in a Netanyahu government would provide precisely the diplomatic cover Mr Netanyahu needs to make his government durable. It would also keep Mr Lieberman on the sidelines. Ms Livni says she will not concede the top job, though she may relent over the coming days.

However, Dr Gordon thinks Kadima may see it as in its interests to sit in the opposition for the time being, watching a weak Netanyahu government flounder.

“Remember, Olmert had 78 seats in his coalition. The best Netanyahu can probably hope for is 65. There is a global financial crisis coming and a potentially hostile administration in Washington. If I were Livni, I’d sit this one out.”

Similar sentiments were voiced yesterday by Kadima’s Meir Sheetrit, the interior minister. He said Mr Netanyahu would be forced to lead “an extremist religious coalition”. “If a government like this is established I anticipate it will have a very hard life.”

Whatever emerges, the legitimacy of Israel’s system of governance is in the spotlight. Domestic political paralysis is likely to ensue, and Israelis face the threat of another short-lived government. Most Israeli commentators agree that the country desperately needs to overhaul the political system, either through electoral reform or a Lieberman-style presidential revolution.

Both changes would make the government more stable by increasing the large parties’ power. But with the smaller parties in no hurry to vote for their own extinction, no one is expecting reform soon.

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