Tzipi Livni elections, Knesset snap elections
Dan Balilty/AP
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Call for New Elections Reveals Difficulty of Israeli Coalition-Building

October 27, 2008 12:47 PM
by Josh Katz
Tzipi Livni’s decision to call for new parliamentary elections may jeopardize the Palestinian peace process, yet commentators wonder if it was a necessary part of Israeli politics.

Livni Calls for New Elections

The status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in serious question following Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s call Sunday for snap elections. President Shimon Peres dissolved the Knesset on Monday, officially paving the way for new polls, Arutz Sheva reports. Livni made the decision after failing to forge a coalition government, and elections are now expected to occur between late January and March of 2009, instead of 2010, when they were previously scheduled.

A month ago, Peres had given Livni the task of building the coalition after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation. Livni has replaced Olmert as head of the moderate Kadima party, the largest party in the Israeli parliament. This would be the fifth time in less than 10 years that the country—with what many consider an overly complicated proportional representative political system—has held new elections. Olmert will continue to be the caretaker prime minister until the creation of a new government.

As president, Peres holds a primarily ceremonial position, responsible for “presiding over the election and coalition-building process,” the Associated Press reports.

Many have critiqued Israel’s governing structure because a party can win seats in the Knesset with only two percent of the vote under the “list system,” according to British paper The Daily Telegraph. The large number of parties in the Knesset makes it very difficult for a party to earn a majority, and coalitions are often necessary.

Members of the Kadima party’s coalition currently hold 65 of the Knesset’s 160 seats
. Kadima’s 29 seats have been joined with the center-left Labor party’s 19 seats, the religious Shas party’s 12 seats, and 5 seats from the special-interest Pensioners party, which is split into factions. The center-right Likud party, which has not been part of the ruling coalition, holds 12 seats, according to the BBC.

Livni’s coalition-building efforts collapsed because she was unable satisfy the demands of the other parties, however, particularly those of the Shas party. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party pulled out of the coalition because Livni would not agree to Shas’ social welfare requests for “hundreds of millions of dollars” and its desire to take the issue of Jerusalem off the table in any peace agreement with the Palestinians, AP reports. 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.

The AFP reported on Sunday that the Likud Party, led by hawkish former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is leading Livni in the polls. But two new polls released Monday indicate that Livni may have a slight advantage. A Dahaf Research Institute poll shows Kadima holding onto its current 29 seats if elections were held now, with Likud earning 26 seats. A TNS Teleseker survey revealed 31 seats for Kadima and 29 for Likud.
According to the AP, the surveys released Monday indicate that, “the public approved of [Livni’s] tough stand against the political horse trading and did not reproach her for failing to marshal a coalition.” Her lead is small and tenuous, however, the article notes.

The snap elections are expected to table the peace process that that began about a year ago at a U.S.-led summit. At the meeting, Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decided that an agreement would be finalized by December 2008.

Background: Livni wins Kadima primary leadership

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni narrowly defeated former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz by 431 votes in mid-September, a far slimmer margin than polls had predicted. The election, open to registered Kadima voters, had been called to choose a replacement for outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who faces corruption charges.

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.

A day after winning the election, Livni began talks with leaders of other parties about forming a coalition government. Livni had 42 days to form a government and thus become Israel’s first female prime minister since Golda Meir retired in 1974.

Livni faces opposition from right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

Opinion & Analysis: Livni’s decision, and the state of the Israeli government

In U.K. paper The Guardian, Petra Marquardt-Bigman writes that Livni’s decision to call for a snap election should not come as a surprise, considering the history of Israel’s faulty parliamentary system, which has had 31 different governments since the nation was created. That is why Marquardt-Bigman contends that Livni does not look “like a loser” because she couldn’t maintain a coalition. But, she argues, whatever happens in the election, “Given Israel’s political system, it is very unlikely that the election results will produce a clear mandate, and the winner will once again have to cobble together a coalition of political forces with sharply divergent ideologies and narrow sectarian interests, producing yet another government that will be little suited to withstand the challenges involved in making historic decisions.”

An editorial from The Jerusalem Post expressed a similar sentiment. The Post claims that it is not Livni’s fault the governing coalition fell apart; the “political system needs reforming.” The paper writes that “the stranglehold sectarian parties have over the allocation of resources must be broken,” and, if anything, Livni “might just have steered the country in the direction of representative democracy, and away from ‘government by bazaar.’”

Saudi Arabia’s Arab Times warns of a victory by Benjamin Netanyahu. A win for the Likud leader would “put a definite end to any search for peace,” because he opposes discussion on East Jerusalem, “the refugees and borders,” and a Palestinian state. “The political formulation Netanyahu sees as appropriate for dealing with the Palestinians is self-autonomy in association with Jordan,” according to Arab News.

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