Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Israeli elections

Good reporters, like good historians or good lawyers, must be able rather quickly to make sense of a complex situation. I am no authority on Israeli politics, but the results of the Israeli elections call for some analysis, and what follows comes from a brief process of self-education to try to understand what is going on in a country that, however small, seems to share so many of the dilemmas of the United States.
Alone among democracies, Israel elects is 120 Knesset deputies according to proportional representation. The threshold that entitles a party to seats is quite low, and thus the system has always encouraged fragmentation and the formation of new parties--and, I would guess, has therefore become self-sustaining. Here are the results.

Kadima (Likud splinter formed by Ariel Sharon, now under Tzipi Livni - 28 seats.

Likud (led by Benjamin Netanyahu): 27.

Yisrael Beiteinu (strongly anti-Arab headed by Avigdor Lieberman): 15.

Labor Party (founding party of Israel): 13.

Shas (orthodox religious party, moderate on foreign affairs) 11.

United Torah Judaism (ultra-orthodox, favors Greater Israel) 5

National Union (religious Zionist) 4.

United Arab List (two states, East Jerusalem as Arab capital): 4.

Hadash - (left-wing Israeli Arabs): 3

Meretz - (left-wing, social-Democratic, anti-settlement): 3

Balad - (Arab nationalist): 3

Bayit Hayehudi ("The Jewish Home"--religious Zionist) - 3.

All data on the smaller parties comes from very calm articles from Wikipedia. The situation is actually far more complex than even all this would suggest: many of the smaller parties are coalitions of even smaller ones, which constantly change.

The broad message of the results is clear: Israeli politics in the last thirty years have had a swing to the right even more pronounced than American politics from 1968 through 2000. The Jewish Left--Labor plus Meretz--is down to 16 seats out of 120. The fight to lead the government could fairly be described as between the center-right (Kadima) and the Right (Likud.) Although Kadima won one more seat, Likud at first glance seems to have more potential allies on the right. Complicating the picture, however, is the equivocal status of the new third largest party, Yisrael Beitenu, led by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are extreme: he wants to turn some Arab towns within Israel proper over to the Palestinian authority in exchange for Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements (in one of which he lives himself), he wants Arabs to take a loyalty oath reognizing Israel as a Jewish state as a price of retaining their citizenship, and he has called for the execution of Arab political leaders who deal with Hamas. But he is not religious, and the leader of the religious party Shas--which is more interested in promoting religious observance within Israel than in the issue of Israeli borders--has tried to rule out any coalition with him. Lieberman has now met with Livni and Netanyahu and has announced that he knows whom he will support for Prime Minister, although he is keeping it a secret. However, even if Lieberman joints with Netanyahu--which seems more likely, since he was thrown out of Ehud Olmert's Kadima government--they will not, it seems, be able to form a majority right-wing coalition without the support of Shas.

Today's Haaretz (a moderate Israeli daily) reports that both the EU and the United States have privately indicated a preference for a Kadima-Likud coalition as the best hope for peace talks. The western governments have an unlikely ally, Shas, which has also indicated a preference for joining such a coalition. If Livni could bring together the Labor Party and Shas she would have 54 out of the necessary 61 seats and might enjoy the support of the Arab parties as well, but this seems impossible, since it was Shas's refusal to cooperate with Livni that forced her to call the elections in the first place. Thus to this amateur observer, it seems the first alternative to be explored will indeed be the Kadima-Likud-Shas coalition--but it could easily come apart over the most fundamental issue, the identity of the new Prime Minister. Livni will demand the post on the grounds that Kadima won (barely) the most seats, but Netanyahu can claim with some justice that he stands closer to the center of such a coalition. The obvious if less likely alternative is a coalition of the Right, including Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Shas, but as we have seen, that will require the burying of some big hatchets.
The low Arab representation is rather striking. Arabs now make up almost 20% of the population of Israel proper (not including the West Bank or Gaza), but their parties elected just 10 members of the Knesset, less tha 8% of the total. Apparently apathy among Arab voters remains high, and some Christian Arabs, in particular, vote for Jewish. Twenty years ago the Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote a book about the history of Zionism, The Siege.. In the initial parts of the boo he clearly identified the Jews with the Irish in their own struggle against British rule, but in the latter parts, he predicted that Israeli Arabs would become an important and disruptive force inside the always-divided Knesset in the same way that Irish MPs had between 1830 and 1922 in the House of Commons. That has not happened.
Netanyahu has argued that no peace deal is possible and that Israel should continue expanding West Bank settlements. He seems sure to be a critical figure in any new government and thus there will be no progress towards the peace envisioned in the Road Map. In any case, the political and institutional mechanisms favoring the expansion of settlements seem to be irresistible--growing settlements have been the hardy perennial of Israeli politics for decades now, regardless of what party was in power. On the other side, with Hamas so powerful among the Palestinians, a real peace seems impossible anyway. Hamas has expressed some interest in a long-term truce that would not extend some de facto, but not de jure, recognition to Israel, but no new Israeli government seems to share it. Violence will continue. In my opinion, Israel's own interests, and the world's, would be served by trying to keep that violence at the lowest possible level and giving up the failed idea that disproportionate reaction to Arab provocation holds out any hope of a solution. But Israel, like the United States, is moving towards a political realignment and a Fourth Turning. Such eras in national life usually favor radical solutions, whether good or bad. Barack Obama is trying to avoid such an outcome in the United States. His Israeli and Palestinian counterparts have not yet emerged.

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