James J. Zogby
The Jordan Times
February 24, 2009 - 1:00am

Some elections serve as clarifying moments in a nation’s history, others resolve little and serve only as a reflection of internal division. The former provide direction, the latter create paralysis.

The recently completed Israeli elections and ongoing deliberations over to the shape of the next government serve to demonstrate the profound divisions that exist in Israel and the dysfunctional state of its political system.

As is widely known, the current governing coalition lost its mandate. The lead party, Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, a centrist configuration (by Israeli calculations), was composed of an amalgam of individuals spun off from Likud and Labour. They declined from 29 to 28 seats. Kadima’s coalition partner, Labour, dropped from 19 seats to 13. And Meretz, a more leftist party (not in the coalition but supportive of peace efforts), lost support, going from 5 to a mere 3 seats.

This gives the Zionist centre-left a total of 44 seats - far short of the 61 needed to form a government. But this is only part of the story. Post-election analysis suggests that while Kadima was initially seen as Likud-like (after all, its founder was Ariel Sharon), it was viewed by voters in this election as a horse of a different colour. It is estimated that about 70 per cent of the last-minute support garnered by Livni’s grouping came from Labour and Meretz voters hoping to block a Netanyahu victory.

All this may be academic, but is still useful in order to understand the constraints that this will impose on Livni and the strong push that will be made to merge Kadima and Labour as an opposition bloc.

The right won, to be sure, but not without complications of their own. Netanyahu’s Likud won 27 seats, with some of his party’s most extreme members in leadership roles. Next in line was Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with 15 seats. Lieberman, a former Likudnik, launched Yisrael Beiteinu to exploit the resentments of Israel’s sizeable Russian immigrant community. Shas, a religious party of Sephardic Jews garnered 11 seats, followed by a number of smaller groupings representing hardline nationalist and religious parties, which will together hold 12 seats.

The Arab parties and Hadash - a coalition of communists and Israeli-Arab leftist groups (the communists once serving as a substitute nationalist party for Israel’s Arabs) garnered 11 seats.

Israel’s problem is both political and demographic. The “Jewish State” isn’t just Jewish, nor is it in agreement on what it means to be Jewish, with deep divisions between the ultra-orthodox and the nationalists. And demographically speaking, with 20 per cent Arabs, 20 per cent Russians, and 20 per cent Orthodox, you have the makings of a dysfunctional brew.

So Netanyahu won, but what exactly did he win? And how does he govern, given the difficult choices he must face in forming a coalition.

Since rightwing parties hold 65 seats, it might appear easy to cobble together a government of the like-minded. But the religious-secular divide is deep and, at times, ugly. The orthodox will make demands for special consideration by the state that Lieberman and other ultra-nationalists will reject.

At the same time, Netanyahu, though a hardline nationalist, is a savvy (some say dissembling) political leader, keenly aware of Israel’s international standing and image. He knows that the Obama administration has committed itself, as George Mitchell has recently noted, not to a “process” but to the realisation of a two-state solution, and so will not countenance obstructionist behaviour. Nor will the European Union.

Netanyahu, therefore, might prefer a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu and Kadima - choosing the latter for political cover in much the same manner that Sharon used Shimon Peres. Such a coalition would do little and be, itself, more dysfunctional (though for different reasons) than the coalition of the right.

No matter how you add it up, the numbers yield neither a majority for a clear direction nor peace.

All of this should move the Arabs to act. Instead of accepting this Israeli paralysis and dysfunctionality as a justification for their own, the Arab leaders can seize the high ground and establish themselves as the partners for peace, pushing Israel and the US to make the next moves.

Given Mitchell’s recent indication that the Obama administration would, unlike its predecessor, work with a Palestinian government of national unity, efforts must be made to move in that direction. The Hamas leadership should be pressed (and shamed) into joining such a unity effort on its well-known terms - forswearing violence and accepting agreements already entered into by the Palestinian Authority.

Such an agreement would put Netanyahu on a difficult course with Washington over such issues as ending the blockade of Gaza, stopping West Bank settlement expansion and land confiscations, and being asked to make the same commitments to honour past agreements and forswear violence, while entering into good-faith negotiations on “land-for-peace”.

Given Netanyahu’s penchant for attempting to change the debate, as in the 1990s when he worked to shift the discussion from “land-for-peace” to “security and combating incitement”, now he intends to substitute “economic growth” for making peace. He will want to obfuscate and stall Mitchell’s efforts - complaining about his own government’s paralysis. And under cover of this obfuscation, he will continue to take unilateral measures that will solidify Israeli control over Palestinian lands and lives.

This is a moment Arabs can seize, and an opportunity to take control of the debate. This opportunity should not be missed.


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