Livni’s failure to build coalition could help or hurt in new elections


JERUSALEM (JTA) – With Israel now headed for new general elections probably some time early next year, supporters and opponents of Tzipi Livni are putting a very different gloss on her failure to form a governing coalition.

Opponents say Livni’s inability shows she is not yet seasoned enough to lead. Supporters counter that the reasons for her failure show precisely why she is the best candidate.

Livni says that had she been willing to give in to excessive political and budgetary demands by prospective coalition partners, she easily could have formed a government. Instead she took a stand.

The foreign minister, who won the Kadima primary in September to succeed party leader Ehud Olmert, portrays herself as a tough-minded patriot who sacrificed the premiership to stave off demands that would have hurt Israel’s national interest.

Her opponents suggest a less high-minded narrative: They say Livni bungled coalition negotiations because of a fundamental lack of experience.

Livni’s coalition effort was badly hurt by the adept political maneuvering of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party. Netanyahu was able to convince three of Livni’s prospective coalition partners – the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners’ Party – that he probably would win in a general election campaign and would be more amenable to their political and budgetary demands than Livni.

Netanyahu focused on Shas, the largest of the three with 12 Knesset seats. The former prime minister spoke of renewing the “historic alliance” between Likud and the right-wing Shas, declaring that if he won the election Shas would be the first party he would ask to join his coalition.

Shas probably would have been a difficult nut for Livni to crack in any situation. Insiders say party leader Eli Yishai made a strategic decision several months ago to force early elections and pre-empt a looming leadership challenge from his charismatic predecessor, Arye Deri.

Indeed, there were serious doubts as to whether he had negotiated with Livni in good faith. Yishai made two key demands: an allocation of 1 billion shekels – approximately $260 million – for child allowances, and a promise that Jerusalem would not be up for negotiation with the Palestinians. On Jerusalem, Yishai demanded that Livni actually sign a letter vowing to exclude the city from future peace talks.

Even if she had been ready to meet the budgetary demands, the written commitment on Jerusalem was out of the question.

“No American president would return a call from any Israeli prime minister who signed such a letter,” Kadima negotiator Yisrael Maimon, a former Cabinet secretary, declared.

Other challenges also made it difficult for Livni to cobble together a coalition.

Such negotiations typically take place after elections, with a full four-year term looming. But because of  Olmert’s resignation, Livni came in mid-term with elections no more than two years away.

The notion of spending an abridged term in the opposition was less of a deterrent for prospective coalition partners, and they consequently raised their coalition demands. Even the Pensioners’ Party produced a document with some $786 million worth of new demands.

In the end, Livni said, she had no choice but to stop the horse trading and go for early elections.

Olmert likely will stay on as the caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after the elections. Though he is a lame duck – and a disgraced one at that, having resigned under a cloud of corruption investigations – Olmert may press ahead with his peacemaking efforts to turn the next election into a referendum on peace.

Olmert also could step down and hand over the premiership to Livni, giving her the incumbency advantage going into the next election. Some Kadima leaders are talking openly about urging Olmert to make such a move, but Olmert has not offered any indication that he is willing to consider it.

Livni wants to hold new elections quickly. According to law, a majority in the Knesset could have coalesced around another candidate for prime minister and thereby averted the need for early elections, but President Shimon Peres announced Monday that after meeting with party leaders, no such possibility existed.

Elections must be held by mid-February, but the Knesset could speed or slow down the process by passing a law to dissolve itself and set a precise election date. Livni prefers this route and has instructed the Kadima caucus chairman to submit a bill with an election date as early as possible.

Livni likely will base her campaign on her squeaky-clean image in an era of political corruption and argue that of all the candidates, only she can restore the public’s confidence in its government and politics.

She will cite her failure to form a coalition as evidence of her high-principled approach, and her refusal to sign the “Jerusalem letter” with Shas as proof of her sincere commitment to peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu will emphasize his experience, political smarts and special economic skills – he is a former finance minister – in light of the global financial crisis. He also will claim to be the only candidate who can be counted upon to preserve a united Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who was pilloried in the media for demanding special powers in his coalition talks with Livni, will stress his experience as a former prime minister as well as Labor’s long leadership tradition.

Labor and Kadima are facing a serious tactical dilemma: They will be competing for the same center-left political space, but if they attack each other too viciously, Netanyahu will be the main beneficiary.

In the latest polls, Livni is slightly ahead of Netanyahu, with Barak a very distant third.

A Yediot Achronot poll gives Kadima 29 seats, Likud 26 and Labor 11; Ma’ariv has Kadima earning 31 seats, Likud 29 and Labor 11.

In the Yediot poll, the left-center and right-religious blocs are tied with 60 seats each in the 120-member Knesset; Ma’ariv has the left-center ahead, 61-59. The next prime minister needs a minimum of 61 seats in his or her coalition.

Both polls show that the three large secular parties – Kadima, Likud and Labor – could easily form a national unity government of 66 to 71 seats on their own.

That means Yishai, who sparked the election by refusing to join Livni’s coalition, could find himself out in the cold.

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