Sunday, November 09, 2008

Israel proceeds towards its own election

Israel has reacted cautiously to Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential overnight. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said her country hoped the president-elect would maintain US friendship with Israel and a commitment to peace talks. She called Obama's election win "a mark of merit for American democracy." Israel has also hailed the announcement Obama has appointed Jewish former Clinton aide Rahn Emanuel as chief-of-staff. However with its own parliamentary election due early next year, Israeli politicians are wondering what impact he will have on the Middle East.

Livni is hoping to emulate Obama’s success in that election. In September she was narrowly elected leader of the ruling Kadima party edging past main rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by one percentage point replacing scandal-ridden Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Livni’s hopes of becoming immediate Prime Minister were dashed by the refusal of coalition parties to work with the new Government, leaving Kadima little choice but to call an election. As a result Olmert continues to lead a transitional government until the election on 10 February. This is because of a law the Knesset must wait 21 days until it officially declares that general elections will be held within 90 days. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party said it would not join a Livni coalition, citing differences over the future of Jerusalem in the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, and its demand for increased welfare benefits.

Livni labelled her former coalition partners’ demands for continued power-sharing “extortion” and said she would not “pawn Israel’s future for the prime minister’s chair”. Livni told President Shimon Peres she had done everything she could to put together a parliamentary coalition. She said other parties preferred elections. "If everyone agrees that elections are in order," she told Peres, "then we must do it quickly." She is hoping to become Israel’s first female Prime Minister since Golda Meir 30 years ago.

Tzipi Livni was born 50 years ago in Tel Aviv of a Polish father and an Israeli mother. After finishing compulsory military service she worked for Mossad before resigning to finish a law degree. She spent 10 years practicing law specialising in public and commercial law before being elected to the Knesset as a Likud member in 1999. She joined the ministry two years later under Ariel Sharon and worked her way up to Minister of Justice by 2005. When Sharon left Likud to form Kadima, Lipni went too and became second in line to succeed him after Olmert.

The current political impasse is hampering efforts to make progress on the Palestinian settlements. Outgoing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators this week to discuss the faltering Annapolis peace process. According to Barry Rubin, an international affairs and terrorism specialist at Global Research in International Affairs Centre (Gloria) in Israel, Livni wants to use the talks to demonstrate to voters that they should elect her as the country's next prime minister because she is for peace.

However her bid to become Prime Minister could be thwarted by the return of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu who is leading in the polls. He was also at yesterday’s meeting with Rice and intends to adopt a new peace model should he be elected prime minister. Netanyahu told Rice his model would combine diplomatic peace with economic peace, coupled with "accelerated development." He stressed the peace model would be premised on improvement on the grassroots level and then move to leadership level. However, Netanyahu’s track record as former Prime Minister is not impressive in peace talks. He is a hawk and would not be trusted by any of the Arab participants. The more moderate Lipni would be a better bet for peace, but will Israeli voters give her the chance?

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