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As Usual, the Conflict Dominates the Elections
Once again, Israel's elections reflected the dominant role played by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in determining the direction of Israeli politics. Now, it appears likely that the conflict will also dictate the creation of a centrist coalition that may not resolve it, but at least will do it no harm.
It was pessimism toward prospects for a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process, more than any other factor, which caused voters to abandon the political left and move to the center and right. The causes for pessimism are multiple: the failure of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza -- in the eyes of many voters, it produced aggression by Hezbollah and Hamas; the failure of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's (and even President Bush's) clumsy attempt at a renewed peace process; the perceived failure (although it's too early to judge) of the attempt by Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to solve Israel's problems with Hamas militarily; and the abject failure of the Palestinian polity at state-building.
And yet, Livni's success at vote-getting is also an affirmation of the two-state solution she is so closely identified with.
Truly, she fought heavy odds. A failed prime minister from her party refused to step aside in her favor when he could have helped her electorally. The unimpressive Kadima list backing her up repulsed some voters. And chauvinist accusations regarding her lack of experience and security savvy appealed to Israelis' overwhelming security concerns.
Yet in this election, Livni and Kadima successfully embodied the best values of the disappearing political left regarding resolution of the conflict.
By the same token, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman appears to have completely pre-empted the left's values on issues of religion and state, which are now primarily the concern of Israel's Russian immigrant population. Lieberman is best known for his racist attacks on Arab citizens of Israel, whose rejection of Israel as a Jewish state played right into his hands.
Yet he cannot be completely dismissed as a supporter of a two-state solution, even though he prefers a demographic to a geographic standard in delineating the borders.
Finally, there's Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. He came in a close second at the head of a party list populated by many politicians with views far to his right on the Palestinian issue. And he heads a right-wing bloc that won a clear majority in these elections, but whose support for Netanyahu as prime minister would doom him to intense friction with the Obama administration, Israel's moderate Arab neighbors and the rest of the world over settlements and territory -- i.e., once again, over the Palestinian issue.
In the coming weeks, Netanyahu will seek to prove that he can form a right-wing government of at least 61 members of Knesset in order to receive a mandate from President Shimon Peres. His challenge will be to avoid making quotable promises to the right-wing parties that could embarrass him later.
If a unity government shapes up, Livni will insist on rotation of the premiership; otherwise, she and Kadima will opt for the political opposition in the reasonable certainty that a far-right coalition will prove a constant embarrassment for Netanyahu and for Israel, and will be short-lived.
Livni and Netanyahu -- probably along with Lieberman -- will almost certainly meet somewhere in between.
The resultant coalition will likely engage in fairly effective conflict management with the Palestinians. It could also find a common language with Washington regarding progress with Syria. This would strike a critical blow at Tehran's designs in the region, thereby ultimately strengthening moderate Palestinians in the bargain.
Negotiations between Syria and Israel would be ironic, considering it was a non-issue in the elections. Yet stranger things have happened in Israel when the right is in power, but the left -- this time in the form of Kadima --retains its influence.
Yossi Alpher is co-editor of bitter lemons.org, where this piece first appeared. He's a former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.