Friday, February 13, 2009

Netanyahu still favourite to form government in Israel

Likud leader Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is clinging on to his belief that he will be Israel’s next Prime Minister despite Tzipi Livni’s surprisingly good showing in Tuesday’s election. Final results released yesterday defied the opinion polls and confirmed that Livni's Kadima party has a one seat advantage over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party. Kadima won 28 seats and Likud 27 in the 120-seat parliament leaving both well short of a workable majority. Nevertheless both sides have claimed victory. The Interpreter put the resulting confusion best with its headline of “Tzipi wins, Bibi leads and everybody is in government”.

But one of Tzipi or Bibi must take the spoils. Netanyahu maintains he should be given the first chance to form a government because of the broad right-wing make-up of the new parliament he says would back him ahead of the more centrist Livni. He can rely on the 12 seats of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party while the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party (who finished third with 15 seats) is also likely to back him. Its leader Avigdor Lieberman is angling to become finance minister in a Netanyahu administration. Meanwhile the Likud leader received a boost yesterday when the small Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party which gained three seats confirmed they also would support him. President Shimon Peres now has two weeks to decide who will get the chance to lead the horse-trading.

If Netanyahu does win, it will be his second coming as Prime Minister. He succeeded Yitzhak Shamir as Likud leader when the latter retired after his 1993 election loss. Netanyahu immediately cultivated the ultra-right in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords signed by the Labor government. He attended rallies organised by extremist groups where the mob called for the death of the “Oslo criminals” (Labor leaders Rabin and Peres) and compared them to Nazi collaborators by calling them “Judenrat”. Netanyahu played a key role in inciting the rising tide of hatred against Rabin. After one suicide bomb in Tel Aviv, he pinned the blame squarely on the Prime Minister, “I accuse you [Rabin] of direct responsibility for stirring up Arab terror…You are guilty. This blood is on your head”. Netanyahu’s feverish pronouncements led to their inevitable conclusion when a disgruntled right-wing settler assassinated Rabin in November 1995.

The tensions caused by the suicide campaign prevented Labor’s Shimon Peres from capitalising on Rabin’s death. And Netanyahu’s election in 1996 as Prime Minister spelled the end of Israel’s acceptance of the Oslo Accords, though he did not significantly change Israeli policy on the issue. Nor was his government’s stance on the Palestinian question radically different from that of Rabin’s before him or Peres’ and Barak’s after him. Both the Likud and Labor Prime Ministers believed in the imposition of a strong Jewish state dominating a small Palestinian protectorate. Netanyahu’s policy promise was what he called “the three no(s)”: no withdrawal from Golan, no compromise on Jerusalem, no negotiations with the Palestinians. However he broke that last promise in office and signed an accord with Arafat in 1997 to withdraw Israeli forces from Hebron. This was the beginning of the end for Netanyahu and he was defeated by Peres’ Labor Party in 1999.

Netanyahu’s hawkishness was marginalised after Ariel Sharon took power in 2001 and eventually broke away to form Kadima. But as Barry Rubin says, Netanyahu has himself moved towards the centre in recent years. He also states that in Israel he is now more acclaimed for his “brilliant handling of the economy” when he was minister of finance in Sharon’s government between 2003 and 2005. However Rubin concedes that it won’t be easy for Netanyahu to form government and his “ability to corral a half-dozen quarrelling parties is unlikely.”

The least complicated outcome might see Likud and Kadima forming a coalition government. While Lipni may be reluctant to serve under Netanyahu, Ha’aretz considers it a live possibility. The Israeli newspaper quotes a source saying Kadima would demand the key foreign and defence portfolios in a Netanyahu administration. The way might then also be open for Livni to inherit the premiership in a couple of years. Another advantage of this arrangement could see Likud do away with some of its more extreme (and potentially embarrassing) rightist and ultra-Orthodox allies. As a Netanyahu aide admitted to Ha’aretz, "such a government would be hard to govern and very unpopular with the general population.”

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