Wary Netanyahu in Driving Seat

JERUSALEM – Israel’s foreign minister Tzipi Livni clung precariously to a narrow lead over her right-wing rival Benjamin Netanyahu as vote counting neared conclusion from Israel’s Tuesday general election. Both would-be prime ministers continue to claim victory: "I won," read the headline of the country’s biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronot, alongside the photos of the two.

Some pundits predict Israel is plunging into political gridlock. But, while there is almost total parity in terms both of votes cast and Knesset seats won, in reality there are not two winners. One man is fairly firmly in the driving seat – Netanyahu, though his Likud has garnered only 27 seats compared to Kadima’s 28 in the 120-seat Knesset.

Most ballots had been counted by Wednesday morning, but final results will not be known until Thursday afternoon when soldiers’ votes and other absentee ballots are included. In past elections, the soldiers’ vote has often leaned rightward.

In her "victory" address in the early hours of Wednesday, a smiling Livni told ecstatic supporters, "Today the people chose Kadima. The land of Israel does not belong to the right, just as peace does not belong to the left," she added, striking a centrist note.

She continued to argue for the legitimacy of her having the first crack at forming a new coalition; Netanyahu claims legitimacy on the basis of the number of seats he can command by forging "a natural coalition" with the Likud’s "natural allies."

The major surge to the right in recent years that has characterized Israeli politics was reflected in Tuesday’s voting patterns; the power of the traditional left and center-left was decimated, leaving Netanyahu in command of 65 seats to Livni’s maximum of 55 in the unofficial Right vs. Center blocs.

Once the final results are in, President Shimon Peres will consult with leaders of all the elected parties to determine which of the two stands the best chance of forming a coalition. He or she then has up to 28 days to form a coalition. If the attempt fails, Peres can ask another leader to assume the task.

Livni sought to retain some sort of initiative by publicly urging Netanyahu to join her in a broad national unity government. It was something of a hollow call. She depends on Netanyahu playing ball: he, however, is not immediately dependent on her because of his of his solid right-wing alliance.

During his "victory speech" Netanyahu buried the disappointment at having trailed in behind Kadima as he listed two "existential challenges" that his government will need to tackle urgently – "the Iranian threat – from Hamas in Gaza, and from Iran itself – and the global economic crisis." How he means to tackle those challenges will be determined by how he constructs his coalition.

Although Netanyahu confidantes express confidence that he will have "little difficulty" constituting a viable coalition, a narrow government based solely on the Likud’s right flank could be fraught with complications – both in domestic policies and, more critically, in terms of relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world and, by extension, with a concerned international community.

The election was held in the middle of delicate, indirect talks with Hamas for a Gaza cease-fire Hamas seemed alert to the possibility that the tentative truce may yet fail to materialize; given the Israeli political complications, there is concern in Israel that before proceeding with the Egyptian-mediated truce, Hamas might simply wait to see whether there is still a real prospect for ending the war with a durable cease-fire arrangement.

Both Livni and Netanyahu have been actively courting the man who could be a pivot in the coalition-building process, Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right, anti-Arab Israel Beiteinu party, now the third largest party with 15 seats. "We want a nationalist government. We want a rightist government…we do not hide this," said the potential king-maker. But keeping his options open, he added: "The decision will not be simple."

"For all the ideological commitment within the Likud camp, a narrow right-wing is definitely not what Netanyahu would have been hoping for," observed Leslie Susser of the Jerusalem Report magazine. "You could even say this is something of a nightmare scenario for Netanyahu. Being held hostage by the radical right may yet prompt him to make overtures to Livni to establish a broader based government built around both Likud and Kadima."

These complications were underlined when Lieberman pronounced that his first policy condition for joining any coalition was that any new government had to commit itself to "obliterating" Hamas in Gaza. We do not envisage any cease-fire with Hamas, he said. "Netanyahu had also spoken of the failure to carry the war in Gaza through to a definitive conclusion, but such statements were before he was likely to be in power," points out Susser.

Meir Shitreet, a senior legislator on Livni’s Kadima team, put it more bluntly still. "Should the Likud choose to reject our overtures to join forces in confronting the challenges facing Israel, so be it. A narrow right government which spurns all moves towards resolving the Middle East conflict would soon find itself in confrontation with everyone and there will be another election within the year," was Shitreet’s gloomy forecast in an interview on Israeli national radio.

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.