At least, Livni did not lose

It is a tremendous relief that Tzipi Livni was not trounced in this vote.

By the narrowest of leads — the Israeli election commission now gives Livni’s Kadima Party 28 seats while the next highest party has 27, and some votes are still not counted — she seems to have “won” the most votes in yesterday’s election.

Or, at least she did not lose — as had been widely predicted.

Yet, there is still a chance she may not get to form the next government. If the apparent runner-up in the election, Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s Likud Party, is able to demonstrate to Israel’s State President Shimon Peres that he can put together a coalition government of parties from the right, that would pose a real dilemma.

Would Peres give Livni a first shot, anyway?

But, then again, why should much of the world be so absorbed by these elections — and all the attendant exotic minutiae of the Israeli political scene?

The only reason is the real concern to know if there is any reasonable chance to see a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Livni’s placement in the polls suggest that Israel’s voters have not rejected continuing peace negotiations with the Palestinians, despite the heady anti-Arab/anti-Palestinian atmosphere that has only thickened with the national feelings of justification for the recent military attacks in Gaza, angrily oblivious of strong international criticism.

Her enormously unattractive behavior during Israel’s recent 22-day military invasion of Gaza — threatening more and worse — turned many potential supporters from Israel’s “left” against her, even as most pre-election predictions indicated a victorious Israeli “right”.

But, the political spectrum in Israel is unlike any other place in the world.

Livni said hours after the polls closed that she wanted “a national unity government that would be founded on the large parties in Israel from both Kadima’s left and right

“Left”, in general parlance in Israel, means pro-peace. “Extreme left” means willing to get on with negotiations with the Palestinians to the extent of being prepared to make explicit territorial concessions. “Right” generally means overt expressions of anti-Arab sentiments — including favoring of the ongoing and even vigorous settlement project in the West Bank.

The Kadima (“Future”) party that Livni heads (it was founded by the now-stricken Ariel Sharon, who is apparently in a vegetative state in a caring nursing home in Israel) is now described by some as “centrist”, while by others as “center-right”.

Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg yesterday told BBC World Television’s Lyse Doucet that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) Party was “right”, while he described the two leading parties (Kadima and Likud) as “center”.

But, as Kadima leader Livni headed for a meeting with Lieberman about a possible coaltion, the Jerusalem Post reported that “a Kadima official told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday that [Liberman’s] Israel Beiteinu was more of a natural partner than Likud, and that Lieberman’s party was ‘not really in the right-wing bloc … They are not on the Right on the issue of a two-state solution. They support that solution, but they want a land swap. They are not on the Right on state-religion issues and they are not on the Right on the issue of changing the system of government. Lieberman is pragmatic and he can definitely be in the coalition,” the top Kadima official said”. This account can be read in full here.

Kadima member Avi Dichter, Israel’s Minister of Internal Security and apparently an ally of Livni, told the Jerusalem Post that “We represent the center. Ehud Barak is the right wing of the Labor party, and Binyamin Netanyahu is the Left wing of the Likud. Both of those parties have tried to move into the center during the election campaign, but in truth, they are on opposite political poles. Livni is at the center of the centrist party”. This JPost article can be read in full here.

But, the morning after the balloting, the Likud Party (now led by Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu) is said to be heading an emergent right-wing coalition that commands some 64 seats (a majority) in the next Knesset, and on that basis Netanyahu is claiming that he — now, somehow, a leader of both the national and religious right — is better placed to form the next government coalition, and should therefore be tapped as the country’s next Prime Minister.

One of Netanyahu’s main campaign slogans was the need to deal with a potential threat from Iran — and even to go it alone if necessary, even after the U.S. Administration of George W. Bush indicated in its final months in office that it would not go along with an Israeli military strike.

Netanyahu was not only playing on the fears, anxieties and security concerns that are thought to plague the Israeli electorate, he also appeared to be trying to show up, or to snub, or to trump the American government position that a military attack on Iran now is not in line with U.S. interests. In any case, talk about the Iranian menace appears to have disappeared overnight.

The interesting Iranian-Israeli analyst Meir Javendanfar has just blogged about his “Miserable Voting Experience” in these Israeli elections, writing: “Then I heard Bibi and his talk of deposing Hamas. The Iraqi regime change experience was bad enough for the US. It would be absurd to let a leader who talks about a similar adventure come to power in Israel. Stopping him became my priority. This is when I realized that Ehud Barak (head of Labour party) had no chance of running against Netanyahu for the post of Prime Minister. So it was time to get the protractor out for the second time. I decided to turn 45 degrees to the right again, to Tzipi Livni. She was the best moderate choice who has a respectable chance of standing against Netantahu. 90 degrees away from my conscience, I went to cast my vote today. As I placed my vote in the ballot box, I broke into a sweat. Tzipi Livni is a far better politician than Bibi, but she was not my first choice. She was my third. And now my body had joined my heart in protesting. It goes to show, that even when you have a full range of choices, it doesn’t mean that you pick the one you ideally want. Unlike 2006, my voting experience today was a miserable one. I don’t want to imagine how I will feel if Likud wins. I know how President Ahmadinejad will feel. He will be happy”. Javendanfar’s post can be read in full here.

Despite Netanyahu’s life-long effort to align himself with America’s “neo-Conservatives”, he reportedly had to resort to temper tantrums to get booked for meetings with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during many of her visits to the region in 2008 to promote the negotiations launched at Annapolis in November 2007 that were supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian State by the end of the term in office of former U.S. President George W. Bush on 20 January 2009 at the latest.

Netanyahu spoke out in the waning days of the electoral campaign against the “division” of Jerusalem — one of the main issues under negotiation — and in favor of maintaining the West Bank settlements that the U.S. government has criticized as “unhelpful”.

Nabil Abu Rudineh, official spokesman and advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Voice of America last night that “no negotiations can go on with any Prime Minister as long as Israel maintains Jewish settlements in the West Bank”.

While Netanyahu staked out a policy challenge, Livni has not spoken out about the settlements. She has been the head of the Israeli negotiating team during the Annapolis process — which the Israelis have insisted should be bilateral and secret. The few leaks that emerged toward the end of 2008 did not appear to originate from Livni. Abu Rudineh said that “There were some obstacles with Olmert and Livni concerning many issues. We didn’t close any files. On the contrary, the settlements continue and we hope that with the change which has taken place in America, there should be change in Israel.”

Netanyahu may have hoped that by insisting on these elections, as he did, and by gaining a strong showing, he would prove to the U.S. Administration that there is no support among the Israeli public for the Annapolis negotiating process.

This ambition has been just checked — but just barely.

Haaretz’s Gideon Levy told Voice of America after the polls closed and the first results came in last night that “people who look forward [to] any kind of progress in the peace process should be happy tonight.”

Israel’s State President Shimon Peres, a former member of the supposedly-left “Labor” party who defected to join Sharon’s Kadima party, will formally ask either Livni or Netanyahu to begin efforts to form a new government. Peres has always favored peace negotiations with the Palestinians — which Netanyahu said should be given less importance than efforts to improve the economy in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s position on negotiations is largely unexplained, but he seems to go along with the views of many right-wing military officers who say they want no territorial concessions to the Palestinians until they have successfully passed an extended period of probationary good behavior that may extend from 25 to 50 or even 100 years. Only then, these officers say, we can think about talking peace, and land.

The Israeli political spectrum exists in parallel with a general attitude, explained by someone in Tel Aviv who describes himself semi-mockingly as “extreme left”, who recently told me that the one thing I must understand is that “Nobody in Israel likes the Arabs”.

Even Kadima, of course. Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar wrote today, pondering Kadima’s victory, that “perhaps the secret Kadima code is in the formula political strategist Reuven Adler used to lead Sharon and Olmert to power and repeated it for Livni: Kill as many Arabs as possible and talk as much as possible about peace”. here.

There is no other place in the world where these racial/ethnic animosities are expressed with such lack of embarrassment, such lack of self-consciousness, such lack of pity or shame.

In response, fear and anger among Israel’s Arab/Palestinian citizens about this anti-Arab atmosphere ran high in the run-up to these elections. They were particularly furious about the support for Lieberman’s pledge to make Israeli Arab/Palestinians swear or sign a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish State. In recent years, Israel’s Arab/Palestinians have regarded this issue as a warning of imminent “population transfer” that would amount to an ethnic cleansing.

Many of Israel’s Arab/Palestinian voters said they would not participate in the elections. Yet many others appeared to have rallied.

Yet, somehow, the Arab political parties apparently did not lose any ground in the vote. These parties may have even gained a seat. Was it an indication of a large Israeli Arab/Palestinian turnout? Or, could this possibly mean that some disaffected “leftist” Jewish Israelis voted for these parties?

In any case, there is no sign that these parties would consent, even if asked, to join a coalition with Livni. It would be a pity, however, if the Israeli-Arab parties would not be willing to join a coalition that might work seriously — even if only because of possible future American pressure/encouragement — for the successful implementation of negotiations with the Palestinians. The Israeli-Arab parties could insist on guarantees from Livni and the other coalition parties that there would be no threats to their continuing presence in Israel, and to their full participation in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the country. This would be worth doing. Even if Livni herself said in December, in an interview with army radio, that “My solution for maintaining a Jewish and democratic state of Israel is to have two distinct national entities … And among other things I will also be able to approach the Palestinian residents of Israel, those whom we call Arab Israelis, and tell them: ‘Your national aspirations lie elsewhere’.”

Time Magazine reported that “The Arab parties, which have a total of 11 seats, are also unlikely to join a Livni-led coalition because they remain angry over the Gaza invasion last December. Israeli Arabs voted in big numbers after Lieberman insisted that all Israeli Arabs take a loyalty oath or lose their citizenship. Jamal Zahalka, leader of the Arab party Balad, also said that Israel’s assault in Gaza also rallied voters. “The Zionist parties all supported what happened in Gaza, so Arab voters reacted by voting for us and not the Zionist parties.” This article can be read in full here.

But, even with the “left” Meretz, and the “traditional left” Labor party led by former Prime Minister and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak — which both showed considerable losses in this election — Livni will still be short a few votes from commanding a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Barak’s Labor Party had its lowest results ever – winning only 13 seats, while Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu apparently won 15, coming in with the third-strongest showing.

Coalition negotiations will be probably be difficult, and will involve a lot of extremely unattractive “horse-trading”. Advisers to Livni and Netanyahu both say they do not want to envisage any sort of rotation of the Prime Ministership — which would be a nightmare scenario in any case, in which politicking and back-stabbing would surely take priority over any real policy issues.

One analysis published in the Jerusalem Post today reports that “Kadima’s strategy, and the central message of its campaign, was to convince the public that the election was about choosing between Livni and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. As Election Day loomed, Kadima remained steady, Lieberman rose, and the Likud started to lose altitude. Kadima’s strategists intensified their message: ‘It’s either Tzipi or Bibi’ to reach ‘strategic”‘ voters who wanted to limit the size of the right wing bloc”. This article can be read in full here.

And, one of the strategic advisers to the Kadima campaign was political strategist Eyal Arad, who had previously worked closely with Sharon — after breaking with Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom he had worked for years, both in New York when Netanyahu was Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, and after his return and entry into politics in Israel. Arad told Israel television last night that Netanyahu will NOT be the next Israeli prime minister.

The next government will, therefore, probably be unstable — and many analysts predict new elections will have to be called within the next year or so.

The time, money, and energy consumed is enormous.

And, it has all been forgotten that earlier in the campaign Livni was known as “Mrs. Clean” — before she decided, during the Gaza offensive, the be the “man” who was needed. Apparently, corruption doesn’t matter. These elections were called because the still-Prime Minister Olmert of Kadima — who will continue in office until a new government is successfully formed (and in this interregnum period we might expect a possible “peace surprise”, some analysts predict … Olmert has been particularly hands-on in negotiations concerning Jerusalem) — has resigned due to the outcry over corruption investigations concerning him. One of the more belligerent contenders to succeed him is Likud’s Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister, who had to resign because of other corruption charges, and widespread national distaste for the Marie-Antoinette-like comportment of his wife. And Avigdor Lieberman’s daughter was recently detained on some money-laundering or related charges, which police said might be linked to Lieberman himself…

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