Surface squabbles, underlying Unity

Guardian- 11/02/2009

With the final count nearly complete, it is now possible to draw some tentative conclusions regarding the 2009 Israeli elections. The coalition arithmetic remains painfully complex. It is impossible presently to predict with certainty what type of government will finally emerge from the frantic alliance-building efforts now being undertaken by Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu. Both leaders declared themselves the victor at rival rallies last night. However, some more substantive trends may already be gleaned from the figures.

First, the elections represented a very significant defeat for the traditional Israeli left. Between them, parties representing the historic Israeli left now command only 16 seats in the 120-member Knesset (13 for the Labour party, and three for the Meretz list).

Israeli party loyalties have become fluid. Likud returned from 12 seats in 2006 to 27 in 2009. Nevertheless, a sub-agenda of the current election was the contest between Labour and the newer and more amorphous Kadima for the position of the dominant party representing Israel’s centre-left. As of yesterday, Kadima appeared to have won that contest. In so doing, Kadima seems to have managed to escape the fate of many previous Israeli “centrist” parties – to shine brightly during a single election, then vanish without trace.

Second, the elections represent the emergence to the front rank of Israeli politics of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Homeland) of Avigdor Lieberman. It is a further measure of Labour’s eclipse that this new party, which won 15 mandates, has pushed Labour into fourth place. For the international media, Lieberman became the main story of the election. Newly minted experts on Israeli politics depicted him as “far right” and compared him to Jörg Haider, Jean-Marie Le Pen and others of their ilk.

The Lieberman phenomenon is far more complex. He has managed to tap into a considerable anger among many Israeli Jews at the growth of Islamism and nationalist radicalism among Israel’s 20% Arab minority. This process is best exemplified by the flight from the country of Balad party leader Azmi Bishara, under suspicion that he aided Hezbollah in the 2006 war. Lieberman spotted that this issue was regarded as too controversial by the mainstream parties, and focused on it.

But most Israeli analysts agree that Lieberman’s behaviour in government belies the populist rhetoric of his campaign. He is already an experienced holder of senior executive office, having served as transport minister, national infrastructures minister (ie energy minister) and minister for strategic affairs in previous coalitions. In all these positions, colleagues regarded him as a responsible and serious member of cabinet. Nevertheless, Lieberman’s success in turning his 10-year-old party from a narrow, sectoral body into a major national political force represents a major (and unprecedented) achievement in Israeli politics.

In terms of likely coalition arrangements, there are two serious possibilities. The first will see a return to the “national unity” arrangement tried out in Israel in the 1984-88 period, when neither Likud nor Labour won enough seats to head a coalition alone. Such an arrangement, if applied now, would see Kadima (with 28 seats) uniting in coalition with Likud (with 27) and then bringing in either Labour (13) or Yisrael Beiteinu (15). Either of these coalitions would comfortably pass the required control of 61 mandates in the 120-member Knesset. In such an arrangement, the prime ministership would rotate between Tzipi Livni and Binyamin Netanyahu, with each holding the position for two years.

The other possibility that may emerge from the weeks of wrangling now ahead is a narrow rightwing coalition, led by Netanyahu and including a variety of nationalist and religious lists. The rightwing bloc scored considerably better than the left in these elections. The right is expected to control 63 or 64 seats in the next Knesset, compared with only 56 or 57 for the left bloc. It should be borne in mind also that the left-led bloc contains 11 Knesset members from Arab parties who have said that they will endorse neither prime ministerial candidate. This means that despite Livni’s party winning the largest number of seats, her ability to assemble a coalition led by her party alone is more limited. This is particularly the case since Lieberman, an essential partner in such a coalition, is known to prefer a narrow centre-right coalition to a narrow centre-left one.

A narrow right wing coalition, bringing together a large collection of small and fractious lists, would be unlikely to govern either smoothly or for an extended period.

All these shenanigans will provide acres of column space for political commentators. They should not, however, be allowed to obscure the bigger picture, and the main indicator of the current election – namely, that in terms of policy preferences, Israelis are largely united. Few believe any more that a final status accord with the Palestinians is anywhere close to realisation, given the weakness and unreformed nature of the Palestinian Authority, continued Hamas rule in Gaza, and growing Islamist radicalisation among Palestinians. At the same time, very few support a policy of permanent Israeli retention of all the land west of the Jordan River.

Hence the most representative coalition would be one bringing together centre left and centre right, into a renewed national unity coalition. It is even possible, after the inevitable period of wrangling, that such a coalition will emerge.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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