Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Peace In The Middle East? Israeli Elections Cause More Doubt Than Hope

Israel's election on Tuesday ended in a near draw, with the two front runners - centrist Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni and hawkish Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu - each claiming victory. With nearly all votes counted, Livni's party won 28 Knesset seats, and Netanyahu's 27 seats, both falling well short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. In order to forma a government, one or both parties will have to agree to a "national reconciliation," coalition government, with no single mandate. Any new Israeli Government will now inevitably be Right-Of-Center/Hawkish, which means continued conflict with Gaza and the West Bank.

This is Time Magazine's take, published earlier today on Yahoo:
The result could be the worst possible outcome for Israel, guaranteeing weeks of political turmoil ahead and stalling any attempts by U.S. President Barack Obama's Administration to restart Middle East peace talks. Whoever comes to power in Israel is likely to be tugged in different directions by combative coalition partners. In the past, smaller parties have held governments of both the right and the left hostage to their narrow, self-serving agendas.

As the single largest party, Kadima will try to approach President Shimon Peres next week for permission to form what Livni calls a "national unity government that would be founded on the large parties in Israel from both Kadima's left and right." It is a logical option. But Livni lacks support among the other parties. For starters, she needs to coax Netanyahu to join her. The two parties actually share many of the same policies and ideologies - Kadima broke away from Likud and drifted to the center - and, in theory, their combined strength could usher in a solid, center-right government. But the mutual antagonism of both leaders makes an accommodation all but impossible. Netanyahu, for example, refused to debate with Livni in public, and both rivals launched smear attacks against each other.

Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister, insists that he should be Israel's next Premier, not Livni. He may be right. Political analysts say the Likud leader stands a far better chance of stitching together a right-wing coalition with small religious groups and Yisrael Beitenu, a nationalist, anti-Arab party that was the surprise in this election. At the last poll, in 2006, Yisrael Beitenu won just 11 seats. Yesterday it won 15, knocking the venerable Labor Party, which picked up 13 seats, into fourth place.

With Kadima and Likud both far short of a majority in the Knesset, Yisrael Beitenu's controversial leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has emerged as a key power broker. Speaking to his party supporters at midnight as votes were being tallied, Lieberman indicated that his natural inclination is to side with Netanyahu. "We want a right-wing government," he said flatly. Lieberman also took a swing at the outgoing Kadima-led government for entering into Egyptian-brokered cease-fire talks with Gaza's Islamic militants, Hamas. "We will not have direct or indirect negotiations with Hamas nor a cease-fire," he said, adding that he would join any government that had as its objective "the defeat of Hamas."
One certain casualty: Israel's pretense at being a 'secular/religious' state will not survive the compromises needed to form a government. Secularism is dead in the State of Israel.

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