ISRAEL VOTES 2009: NEWS ANALYSIS
JERUSALEM – If the polls are right, the outcome of next Tuesday’s Israeli election is a foregone conclusion. Not only does Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud seem bound to emerge as the largest single party, but the bloc of right-wing and religious parties that it leads seems certain to garner a winning majority in the 120-member Knesset.
All the latest polls put Likud ahead of Tzipi Livni’s ruling Kadima Party, some by as many as 12 seats (34-22), others by as few as three (28-25), which theoretically is a small enough margin to be overcome via a coalition deal. But all the surveys without exception give the religious and right-wing parties a virtually unassailable lead, ranging from at least 10 seats (65-55) to as many as 18 (69-51).
That means Netanyahu is almost certain to be invited to form the next government.
The only question seems to be the nature of the coalition he forms. Will he go for a narrow right-religious government that includes the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman; two fervently Orthodox parties, Shas and Torah Judaism; and two national-religious parties, Jewish Home and National Union, associated with supporters of the settlements?
Or will he opt for a national unity government that also includes Kadima and/or Ehud Barak’s Labor Party? Netanyahu claims his biggest mistake as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 was in not forming a national unity coalition with then-Labor leader Shimon Peres.
It is a mistake he does not intend to repeat.
This time, Netanyahu says, he wants to establish the widest possible national unity government with the parties on the right balanced by Kadima and Labor on the left. Likud insiders, however, suggest that he would actually prefer to leave Kadima in opposition, where he believes it will disintegrate as a political force. The thinking is that Kadima in opposition might split, with the hawks rejoining the Likud in return for government portfolios.
Moreover, including Labor without Kadima would be enough to enhance the otherwise hard-line government’s international image and, more importantly, give Netanyahu a degree of flexibility in the Cabinet in dealing with peacemaking initiatives.
Livni, who just four months ago seemed certain to become the country’s next prime minister, is now very much the underdog, and she is pulling out all the stops. Her most recent campaign tactic is to appeal for support as a woman. A campaign ad suggests that no one would question the prime ministerial credentials of a man with her record: army officer, Mossad agent, head of the government companies’ authority, minister of immigrant absorption, regional cooperation, justice and foreign affairs, and deputy prime minister.
Livni is also highlighting the "Obama factor," arguing that an intransigent Netanyahu-led government would be almost certain to clash with a new U.S. administration bent on bringing peace to the Middle East. Israel needs to put a peace plan on the table now because time is running out, she declared Monday at a conference on national security.
As for Barak, the most significant element of his campaign is the way he has been targeting Livni, not Netanyahu. More than anyone else, he has played on the "think twice before voting for a woman" card. When Livni called for tough action in the wake of renewed rocket fire from Gaza this week, Barak referred to her as "gveret mebarberet" — the chattering lady — and said he found it difficult to see people who had never held a gun or fought a battle calling for military action.
In contrast, Barak, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, highlights his performance as defense minister in the 22-day war against Hamas in Gaza. Given Israel’s tough security environment, he suggests that anyone who can manage the defense portfolio can also serve as prime minister.
But Barak’s chances of actually winning the election seem negligible. According to the polls, the best he can hope for is perhaps to supplant Livni as runner-up.
Whether or not Labor finishes ahead of Kadima, Barak’s post-election dilemma is likely to be whether to join a Netanyahu government that includes the hawkish Lieberman. As much as Barak would like to stay on as defense minister under Netanyahu, there are strong voices in Labor insisting that if Lieberman, who is advocating a "loyalty test" for Israeli Arabs and says only he knows how "to deal" with them, they will stay out in principle.
Netanyahu, however, will find it difficult to keep out Lieberman. Indeed, Lieberman has been the big story of the 2009 election. Latest polls give his strident Yisrael Beiteinu party about 16 Knesset seats, with some even placing it ahead of Labor as the country’s third largest party.
Lieberman, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979, started his political life close to Netanyahu in the Likud. In 1999, after a falling-out with the then-prime minister, Lieberman founded a small Russian immigrant party, which has since developed into a major force on the international stage.
In this election, he calculatingly fanned anti-Arab sentiment to build a wide base of electoral support. The showdown with Hamas and the widespread criticism by Israeli Arabs of the devastation in Gaza helped his cause. His main election slogan — "No citizenship without loyalty" — suggests that if empowered he would deny citizenship and its concurrent voting rights to Israeli Arabs. Lieberman’s many critics on the left accuse him of racism.
One thing that could prevent him from becoming a minister in the next government is the fact that police have just accelerated a long-standing criminal investigation against him involving the alleged laundering of huge sums of money. The probe might actually help Lieberman win more seats — many see its sudden renewal just days before the election as a part of a conspiracy against Lieberman.
But if he is indicted or if the attorney general disqualifies him from serving in the new government because of the allegations against him, he would not be able to join the coalition, making it easier for Barak to lead Labor into a Netanyahu administration.
What could change things and have all the pollsters eating their hats? Thirty percent of voters say they are still undecided. If they have not been factored in by the pollsters, Feb. 10 could still provide a surprise twist or two.