Israel election deadlock puts peace on hold

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Feb. 11, 2009 at 11:35 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Israel's election deadlock has put peace on hold. Everything was upside-down and inside-out in Israel's Alice in Wonderland election results Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima ("Forward") Party pulled off a narrow tactical victory as the largest party in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament, with 27 seats. But she is going to have to compromise her centrist, pro-peace-process principles and cut a deal with the tougher right-nationalist parties to hope to form a government.

Israel's right wing-nationalist bloc pulled off a major victory, but it is split between Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, two old allies turned fierce rivals.

The entire center-left bloc combined won only 56 or 57 seats, well short of the 61 majority in the Knesset necessary to form a stable government.

Former Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud Party was dashed in its hopes to return to its traditional position over the past 32 years as Israel's largest party. It very narrowly fell short, winning a still impressive 27 seats, only one less than Kadima. But the right wing-nationalist bloc, in all, clearly outstripped the left, winning a total of 63 or 64 seats.

However, the nationalist bloc is not united. The third-largest party in the new Knesset will be Lieberman's rapidly rising right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu that has now surpassed the fading old Labor Party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But Lieberman, a former chief of staff to Netanyahu, has made clear he is reluctant to serve under his old boss. And Netanyahu is notoriously proud, insecure and thin-skinned.

"Bibi" made quite clear during the election campaign that he would far prefer to strike a deal with Barak and Labor. But he didn't expect Kadima to do so well and Labor to do so badly. And he didn't expect Lieberman to do so well either.

Lieberman wants to redraw Israel's borders with the Palestinian territories to safely include post-1967 Israel major settlement compulsory transfers of populations in Israel. He is far to the right of Netanyahu on security issues, and his massive boost in power will come as bad news -- and an unexpected surprise -- to the new Obama administration that wants to revive and fast-track the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Netanyahu has a strong alliance with the religious Orthodox Jewish parties, and Lieberman is their sworn enemy.

Netanyahu, Barak and the religious parties hoped for a return to the old "business as usual" of Israeli politics before former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shook things up by founding Kadima. But under Livni's leadership, Kadima has revived and clearly eclipsed Barak and old Labor while Lieberman has held the Russian immigrant bloc together, attracted key nationalist support from Likud and also inherited the anti-clerical mantle of the late Yossi "Tommy" Lapid and his Shinui ("Change") Party.

Lieberman, a Moldovan Jewish relatively recent immigrant to Israel, has the overwhelmingly secular 750,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the past 20 years as his main constituency. And he has promised them to install civil marriage, burial and other secular regulations in Israel to break the hold of the ultra-religious parties.

This is where the numerical calculations become mind-numbing. If Netanyahu and Barak make common cause, as they want to, between them they will have only 40 seats in the Knesset. The Shas party representing Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews will provide another 11 seats, and United Torah Judaism a further five, bringing the Netanyahu-Barak alliance up to 56, along with any free-floating tiny parties in the Knesset.

If Livni can cut a deal with Lieberman, then she will have a base of at least 41 seats in the Knesset. The left-wing Meretz Party will give her another three seats, and the other left-wing or secular parties about a dozen more. But Livni's total will still be short of the magic 61, unless the tacit support of the United Arab List and Ta'al puts her just over the top.

If, however, Netanyahu can swallow his pride and Lieberman can resist the temptation to too obviously humiliate his old boss, they can combine for 43 seats. But the religious parties still count for more combined than Yisrael Beiteinu does, and they won't let Lieberman near any levers of power that could reduce their enormous clout over Israeli society.

Expect, therefore, weeks of cutthroat intrigue and bewilderingly opaque deal-making. The most likely outcome will be a shotgun marriage between Lieberman and Livni. But if Netanyahu makes the match with Livni, Lieberman will still be there, looking on as the nationalist camp's chaperone, vigilant to maintain Netanyahu's right-wing virtue.

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