Israeli Elections Prove Things Really Can Get Worse

By Joharah Baker

This year’s general elections in Israel will go down in history as one of the tightest races ever. While Kadima head and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist party has claimed a slight lead over Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu by one Knesset seat, this is by no means an all out victory for her. Without delving into the often confusing details of the Israeli electoral system, it suffices to say that both party leaders have a gargantuan task before them – forming a strong enough coalition – one that would guarantee 61 Knesset seats required by any prime minister to form a government.

As proven at the polls, it is still unclear which way the pendulum will swing in terms of what shape Israel’s next government will take. One thing is for sure though. Much to the chagrin of the Palestinians, the one key player in this year’s elections is neither Livni nor Netanyahu. It is Avigdor Lieberman. Should either Livni or Netanyahu be called on by Israeli President Shimon Peres to form a government, both will likely lean heavily on Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party to help them out.

The fact that Lieberman came third after Kadima and Likud – his party won 14 Knesset seats – shows just how far to the right the Israeli public is shifting. Labor, the party under which the Oslo Accords were signed, was publicly humiliated last night, coming in fourth after Israel Beitenu with 13 seats. With results like these, it is only logical to assume that the Palestinians are looking at a more radical, rightist Israeli government, no matter who takes the premiership.

Truth be told, the Palestinians would only be slightly more irked by Netanyahu than Livni. It is not as though Livni put forth a strong hand of support for finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in her positions as foreign minister and Kadima leader. On the contrary, Palestinians, and the world at large, will forever remember Livni as one-third of the infamous Israeli troika who called for and executed the assault on Gaza. Let’s not forget that Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Prime Minister, was also head of Kadima. We have all seen where his leadership has led us. Barring the Gaza onslaught, Israeli settlement expansion under Olmert’s rule has thrived. According to Peace Now, throughout 2008, a total of 1,518 new settlement structures were erected in the West Bank alone including 261 outposts. In Jerusalem, which all Israeli governments consider the unified capital of Israel, illegal settlement building in the occupied eastern sector of the city has continued and accelerated. Just last week, housing construction in the E-1 area, which connects Jerusalem with Maaleh Adumim and completely severs Jerusalem from the West Bank, was given approval. In all, 3,500 housing units will be constructed on land that was essentially confiscated from Jerusalem area Palestinian villages.

So, for the Palestinians, a government led by Kadima is hardly a comfort. Add to the mix the right-wing minister Avigdor Lierberman who has openly called for the transfer of the Palestinian population in Israel and the execution of Knesset members who meet with Palestinian leaders, the picture grows even bleaker. Lieberman is acutely aware of the power he will wield in any new Israeli government. On election night, February 10, the Moldova-immigrant boasted to his supporters that Israel Beitenu “had determined the agenda of this year’s election.” His first order of business, he continued, would be “to destroy Hamas, to take it down.”

The question is whether having such a right-wing government with nationalist parties such as Israel Beitenu and Shas holding the majority of seats will actually help to “take down” Hamas or strengthen it. Israel’s public, egged on by its politicians, has always cited security as their primary concern. In their campaigns, its leaders have exploited the issue of Israeli security as leverage to win over voters, each trying to appear tougher than the other where the Palestinians are concerned. Some political pundits say groups like Hamas, which continue to fire rockets into Israeli territory, have helped to bolster support for right wing Israeli parties at the expense of those more lenient parties. The near political demise of Labor is evidence to support this theory.

The unfortunate reality is that the right wing nationalist camp has already won Israel’s elections. Tzipi Livni will not be able to form a coalition without groups like Israel Beitenu. She may not even be able to with them, a quagmire she previously found herself in after failing to form a coalition government following her Kadima win last year. It was because of that failure that Israel went to early elections in the first place.

If Netanyahu is called to form the next government, we can all rest assured that it will be one of the most rightist governments in Israel yet. Netanyahu himself is already infamous for his tough positions on the Palestinians and his declared rejection of any viable Palestinian state. His take on a solution is an economic one, whereby any political settlement is non-existent. Rather, the Palestinians will be offered a level of economic stability, enough to “shut them up.” Furthermore, he will have the backing of some of Israel’s most unpalatable politicians, first and foremost, Avigdor Lieberman.

It may take days and even weeks for the final results to be announced and one of the two leading candidates asked to form a government. For the first time in history, the Labor Party is not the deciding factor in any coalition, only a sidebar. Once a government is formed, Palestinians will be looking at two possibilities. The first is a revised continuation of the leadership that ordered the massacre of 1,400 Palestinians over the course of three weeks in the Gaza Strip, but with even more right-wing partners. The second possibility is an all out rightist government that doesn’t mince its words, led by Israeli hawk Benjamin Netanyahu. At least, say some Palestinians, with Netanyahu at the helm, they will know what they are up against. The peace process essentially moved nowhere under Ehud Olmert, who claimed to want a peace deal with the Palestinians but whose actions proved otherwise. Netanyahu claims no such thing. If anything, he has vowed to set it back in time. In the mid-nineties during his first stint as prime minister, he publicly opposed the Oslo Accords. He is strongly opposed to any dismantlement of settlements or land compromises with the Palestinians and has promised to “cripple and ultimately remove Hamas.”

Hence, it is fair to say that the Palestinians find little solace in either candidate. Each has proven their “sincerity” to any real peace with the Palestinians. Still, the fact that Israel is moving more and more to the right does not sit easy with any of us.

– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – Feb 11, 2009)

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