Israeli election leaves future of government in question

Sunday, February 15, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST

Loory: Over 5 million Israelis voted (Feb. 10) in an attempt to pick a new government. It may be weeks before the decision is made, and the vote will be only part of that decision. First, the question is who will form the government? Will it be Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister and leader of the center-left Kadima Party, or Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister and leader of the right-wing Likud Party? Kadima won one more seat in the Knesset, that’s the parliament, than Likud. But now, President Shimon Peres has to decide which party he will ask to try to form a government.  Then, that leader will have 42 days to put together a government, which will not be easy. As a result of the voting, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the relatively new right-wing party Israel Beiteinu or Israel is Our Homeland, has become an important tiebreaker. He has controversial ideas that would be revolutionary for the Jewish state. Is there any way a government can be put together that the people of Israel will stand behind? And if so, will this government be able to handle the problem of forging a peace settlement with the Palestinian Arabs? The consensus seems to be that even though Netanyahu’s party did not win the most votes, he will be asked to form a government and will have to build the coalition. Is that really going to happen?

Etgar Lefkovits, correspondent, Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem: Yes, most likely. The center-right block in the Parliament has approximately 65 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, whereas the center-left block has only about 55 seats.  Even though the centrist Kadima Party has a one-seat lead over the Likud, it appears that Netanyahu will be tasked with putting together a government.

Loory: This assumes that Lieberman’s party will cast its lot with Likud, but Lieberman is a secular Jew and would he enter a coalition with some orthodox religious Jewish groups that he opposes greatly?

Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent, Haaretz, Tel Aviv, Israel: Lieberman’s problem with Shas — the ultra-orthodox religious right party — is not that he is a secular Jew; his wife is a religious Jew.  The problem is that Lieberman ran on the issue of secular marriage, prohibited today in Israel.  Secondly, Shas campaigned against Lieberman. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder of Shas, said that voting for Lieberman is like voting for the devil. It will be difficult to fix the gap, but in politics everything is possible, especially in Israel.

Loory: Lieberman is called a right-winger, yet he is also in favor of giving up some occupied territory and doing away with the West Bank settlements.

Ravid: Many myths exist about Lieberman because he’s ambiguous. He is not the biggest supporter of the two-state solution or the Annapolis or peace process at large. Lieberman ran his campaign on hatred and racism against Arab Israelis. One of his main campaign ideas was “loyalty for citizenship” for the Arab Israelis. This has been seen only from extreme-right parties that did not get enough votes to get into the Knesset.

Loory: Loyalty oaths presumably would disenfranchise or even have citizenship taken away from hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs, plus ultra-orthodox religious Jews. Does this have any acceptance beyond Lieberman’s party?

Josh Mitnick, correspondent, The Washington Times and Christian Science Monitor, Tel Aviv, Israel: Several days before the election, Netanyahu said he wouldn’t rule out such a law. At the time, Netanyahu’s numbers were dropping in the polls, and he was trying to get right-wing voters who were moving toward Lieberman. There are many politicians within the national Israeli camp that would support a law like this. That doesn’t mean there would be wall-to-wall support from the right, but Lieberman is not alone in promoting these ideas.

Loory: Is there any possibility that Lieberman will support Livni and the Kadima Party?

Lefkovits: Yes, but it is almost zero. It is clear to everyone that he prefers a government headed by Netanyahu. But he said he wouldn’t rule any party out; he’s not disclosing his cards.

Loory: What is the possibility of a coalition government that would include both Kadima and Likud?

Lefkovits: Netanyahu has said he doesn’t want to form a narrow government with only small right-wing parties and the ultra-orthodox party.  He wants to form a broader coalition, including Kadima, which would allow him to represent the whole state of Israel. Likud has offered Kadima to join their government, if they take the foreign and defense minister positions, the two most important jobs after the prime minister. The question is: Will Kadima, led by Livni, be willing to join a government led by Netanyahu? Kadima wanted to form their own government, but now must choose to remain in the opposition or join a national unity government.

Ravid: The feeling among Kadima aides is that joining Netanyahu’s government is not the first step. If Kadima does not join the government, then neither will the Labor Party, leaving Netanyahu with only the right-wing parties. He will be prime minister, but he will have an extreme-right government not accepted easily by the new U.S. administration, not to mention the international community. Kadima is betting that outside pressure and a lack of progress in the peace process will bring complete stagnation, and his government will fall after 12 to 18 months. This would bring the left back to power.

Loory: How is this election being viewed in the Arab world? Is there any feeling that either Livni or Netanyahu will further the peace process?

Khaled Al-Maeena, editor-in-chief, Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: It is a bleak picture with the last incidents in Gaza; we are going far away from the peace process. Israel’s political gridlock means that either party will have to cater to the right to hold power. With extremism on the rise and statements made by both candidates concerning deportation of Israeli Arabs and loyalty oaths, it doesn’t bode well. No one has a clear-cut edge to forward any peace proposals and thus meager negotiations will occur, if at all.

Loory: How is this election being viewed within the Obama administration?

Ken Silverstein, Washington editor, Harper’s Magazine, Washington, D.C.: There’s a general consensus in Washington that the election outcome was very negative for progress towards peace talks. It doesn’t matter who forms the government because it looks as if the Israeli public and government are moving sharply to the right. The majority in Parliament is opposed to Palestinian statehood, whoever forms the government. Meanwhile, Obama has sent his envoy, George Mitchell, to get the peace process going on the basis of a two-state solution, which clearly has no support in Israel. There will not be much progress for the next couple of years. The scenario is not positive in Israel, nor in Washington.

Loory: Do the Arab states accept the idea of an extremely remote prospect, or is there anything they can do to further the process from their point of view?

Maeena: There has to be a meeting of both sides at the table again to revive the peace process, but with no one pressuring Israel and the U.S. having its own priorities, I don’t think any government in Tel Aviv would be interested in any peace process now.

Lefkovits: Israel does not have a partner on the Palestinian side for peace because the Palestinians are as fragmented as ever. There is complete division in the Palestinian territories between Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which runs the West Bank. Hamas still refuses to recognize the existence of the state of Israel.

Loory: There is now serious fragmentation on both sides of the peace process and how that fragmentation is going to be straightened out, we just don’t know.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, and Melissa Ulbricht.

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