Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hawkish ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu are locked in a battle for power after a tight election that could send peace talks into limbo. Livni’s Kadima party won 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset, just one ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party, leaving the country facing perhaps weeks of political uncertainty. An overall lurch to the right makes it more likely Netanyahu will return to the nation’s most powerful post, but Livni immediately started coalition talks, meeting with Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu—who observers say has emerged as king-maker.
Lieberman, who met Netanyahu later in the day, played his cards close to his chest. “We will clarify our positions and will do our part in putting together a cabinet as soon as possible,” he said after his talks with Livni. Also meeting with Netanyahu was Eli Yishai, head of the religious Shas party, which is a member of the current government but has fallen out with Livni over her refusal to keep the future of Jerusalem out of Middle East peace talks.
Both Netanyahu—who became Israel’s youngest prime minister in 1996—and Livni have laid claim to the premiership. Under Israel’s political system, it is the party considered best able to form a coalition—and not necessarily the winner of the most seats—which will be tasked with forming a new government. (Middle East Online, Feb. 11)
Both now appear to be wooing the ultra-right. Lieberman’s platform calls for citizens to take a loyalty oath, with those who refuse losing the right to vote or to run for office—a plank obviously targeting Israel’s substantial Arab minority for official discrimination. Another party plank calls for Israel to redraw its borders so that areas with large Arab populations would fall under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority—while areas of the West Bank with Jewish settlements would be annexed by Israel.
The left-wing Meretz party paints Lieberman as a racist would-be dictator, with one poster reading: “If you liked Mussolini, if you were missing Stalin, you’ll love Lieberman.” (The Telegraph, BBC World Service, Feb. 11)
Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Our House”) was originally conceived as a party for Russian immigrants, who came to Israel in large numbers starting 20 years ago. It has mostly partnered with right-wing and religious parties. Lieberman is currently facing a criminal investigation for possible corruption. Political insiders joke that Lieberman may be looking in negotiations for a “get out of jail free” card. (Fox News, Feb. 11)
Israel’s apparent lurch to the right throws cold water on President Barack Obama’s push to keep Middle East peace hopes alive. “The election results are bad news for the region’s security and stability,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. “They are very bad news for the Obama administration, which seems determined to push for Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace.” (Middle East Online, Feb. 11)
Hamas official Fawzi Barhoum said Israeli voters elected a “troika of terrorism”—an obvious reference to Livni, Netanyahu and Lieberman. “This shows that the Zionist voters clearly start choosing the one who is most extreme in his speech, the one who wants war with the Palestinians,” Barhoum told AlJazeera.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would negotiate with the new government no matter what it looks like. “The ascent of the Israeli right does not worry us,” he told Italy’s La Repubblica. “In whatever form, the government, once in power, will ultimately end up with responsibility, pragmatism prevailing.” (JTA, Feb. 11)
See our last post on Israel/Palestine.