Israel elections, Livni beats Netanyahu, Kadima wins elections
Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni

Israeli Election Results May Provide More Questions than Answers

February 11, 2009 12:05 PM
by Josh Katz
Israel is in for more political maneuvering following the elections. Livni narrowly beat Netanyahu, but victories on the right leave the government in limbo. 

New Israeli PM Remains Unclear

Although Tzipi Livni edged out Benjamin Netanyahu in yesterday’s Israeli elections, both sides are claiming victory and the state of the government seems like it will be in limbo for some time. Livni’s centrist Kadima party won 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, beating Netanyahu’s right-leaning Likud party by one seat. The Labor party on the left dropped to fourth place for the first time ever with 13 seats, getting overtaken by the Avidgor Lieberman and the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, which grabbed 15 seats.

The current results mean that, when added together, the parties on the right side of the political spectrum control a majority of Knesset seats. If they can join together to form a coalition, they would hold an official majority and Netanyahu would become prime minister even though he lost to Livni; thus Livni and Netanyahu both claimed victory on election night.

However, Netanyahu will probably struggle to create his coalition. “The rightists are divided among themselves over domestic issues and Mr. Netanyahu, in any case, does not want a government comprising only rightists, preferring a more moderate-looking coalition,” according to The Economist. Livni may even team up with Yisrael Beitenu, despite their major ideological differences. Yisrael Beitanu leader Lieberman, unlike Netanyahu, does agree with the idea of a two-state solution like Livni does, and nothing in his “civil agenda endears him to the religious parties that are Mr. Netanyahu’s natural allies in the ‘national camp.’”

But if Netanyahu forges a rightist coalition, “he will presumably turn to Kadima and try, by persuasion and blandishments, to convince Ms. Livni to set aside her dreams of becoming prime minister and join with him instead in a broad-based centre-right government,” The Economists writes. He could still conceivably offer Livni the foreign ministry position.

Now, President Shimon Perez will meet with all 12 parties that won seats in the new Knesset, and he has six weeks to choose the new prime minister. “Whoever is chosen then has up to 42 days to form a coalition. If the attempt fails, Mr. Peres can ask another leader to assume the task,” according to The BBC. Ehud Olmert will remain the caretaker prime minister until a new leader is determined.

Background: Livni calls elections after Olmert steps down

Livni was unable to form a coalition after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided last year to resign from his position because of corruption charges, and in October she called for new elections. Likud was clearly winning in the polls weeks before the election, but Kadima gained popularity as the day neared.

Livni’s coalition-building efforts in October collapsed because she was unable to satisfy the demands of the other parties, particularly those of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Shas pulled out of the coalition because Livni would not agree to the party’s requests for “hundreds of millions of dollars” in social welfare spending and its desire to take the issue of Jerusalem off the table in any peace agreement with the Palestinians. Livni also hoped to earn the support of the left-wing Meretz party to solidify her coalition.

“When it turned out that everyone was taking advantage of this opportunity to make illegitimate demands, both financial and regarding the peace process, I decided to stop all this and go for elections,” Livni said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Many have critiqued Israel’s government structure because a party can win seats in the Knesset with only two percent of the vote under the list system. The large number of political parties makes it very difficult for any one party to earn a majority, and coalitions are often necessary.

Livni is a political moderate who favors the creation of a Palestinian state and a withdrawal of Jewish settlers from much of the West Bank. She is nicknamed “Mrs. Clean” for her honesty and integrity—considered a welcome change from Olmert—though her critics say she lacks experience. Netanyahu is more hawkish in his policies toward the Palestinians and served as Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999.

Opinion & Analysis: What the elections mean for the Middle East

The election does not bode well for the Israeli government, says Eitan Haber on Israel’s Ynetnews. Haber says that, “The three largest parties, all of which failed to secure even 30 mandates, are a recipe for political disaster. In the absence of a solid base of at least one large party, the next elections are merely a matter of time.” He also argues that Netanyahu will probably try to bring his political opponents on the left into his government because an all-right coalition would rob him of legitimacy, and Netanyahu “knows that the State of Israel’s existence—yes, existence!—depends on legitimacy on the part of the nations of the world.”

In his blog for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg also criticizes the Israeli electoral system. “Israel’s is an insane system, which gives every lunatic fringe party disproportionate say in the running of the country, and therefore encourages radicalism,” he claims. He also talks about the status of the Labor Party. “Did I mention that the Labor Party, which built the Jewish state, is dead? Its only hope for relevancy is a merger with Kadima. This would have the added benefit of being good for Israel, and for people who desire negotiations with the Palestinians. Which is why it probably won’t happen.”

Aluf Benn agrees in Haaretz that Labor is fading, and the best hopes for the party and the country are to merge with Kadima. “There is no ideological difference between Labor and Kadima that could constitute an immovable obstacle to the parties’ merger,” Benn says. “A merger would strengthen the camp that supports a division of the land and a peace deal with Syria, in contrast with the right wing, which opposes any compromise or withdrawal.”

But, according to Liam Fox of the Daily Telegraph, it doesn’t matter who is in charge in Israel because peace will not be achieved unless there is change in Gaza. He argues that the great strides are occurring in the West Bank under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. “But the wider world needs to realise that as long as Hamas, a movement rather than a government, remain in power with their implacable opposition to Israel’s existence nothing will change,” he writes. “They will import more deadly Iranian rockets reaching further into Israel, hitting new Israeli cities and the cycle will repeat itself.”

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