Thursday, February 26, 2009

Elections in Israel

The people of Israel want peace more than any other thing today, but the just-concluded parliamentary (Knesset) elections there have thrown up a hung House. As a result, those opposed to any dialogue with the Palestinians are now in a better bargaining position.
Fractured Mandate
The liberal Kadima party, led by Ms Tzipi Livni, has emerged as the biggest group with 28 seats in the 120-member House. But very few parties are willing to form a coalition government under Ms Livni’s leadership. The only group that can be expected to make common cause with the Kadima is former Prime Minister Yehud Barak’s Labour Party with its 13 members. This, however, cannot help the Kadima leader to manage the support of 61 members, needed to run the Government.
Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud, leader of the second largest party having 27 seats, is better placed to become the next Prime Minister. He can manage to weave a coalition of the rightist parties, which have together captured 65 seats. Avigdor Lieberman, hardliner head of the Yisrael Beitenu, which got 15 seats, is ready to play the role of the kingmaker. Netanyahu, however, must be aware of the fact that taking along a motley crowd of those subscribing to extremist ideologies will not be easy for him. That is why he has offered Ms Livni to agree to join a government led by him and help end the political crisis in Israel.
West Asia Peace Prospects
The confusion in the wake of the fractured verdict in the recent Israeli elections puts paid to any hope that the West Asian peace process may restart any time in the near future. If anything, the emergence of the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party as the third largest, after Kadima and Likud, shows that public opinion is growing against any accommodation with the Palestinians.
Israel has been emboldened to pursue its aggressive policies against the Palestinians, something that was clearly evident in the manner in which it refused to back down in the face of international pressure over the Gaza offensive. Ms Livni, who is considered a moderate, was forced to back this stand despite enormous civilian casualties in Gaza. The voices for peace and accommodation are no longer heard on both sides. The moderate Fatah faction headed by Mahmoud Abbas has been sidelined as Hamas calls all the shots. And in Israel, the political space has been all but swallowed up by the right-wing.
Netanyahu had a strained relationship with the Clinton Administration during his years as Prime Minister, from 1996 to 1999. Books written about Clinton's peace efforts quote the former US President and aides delivering scalding denunciations of the strong-willed Netanyahu. The Likud party leader was critical during the election campaign of the peace process promoted by the Bush administration, and skeptical that a deal could be struck. He has called instead for Israel to work on an "Economic Peace Plan" for the Palestinian territories.
But with most Israelis eager for harmony with the US, Netanyahu clearly tried to establish good relations with Barack Obama at meetings they held during the US presidential campaign. He has also signaled that he could be open to peace negotiations with Syria, another interest of the Obama Administration. It is expected that Netanyahu would focus on small steps with the Palestinians, such as the removal of checkpoints in Palestinian territories, efforts to strengthen Palestinian Authority security forces in the fight against militants, and economic development.
One is over the accelerating growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Another is over how to deal with the Palestinian Government if the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, tries again to form a unity government with the rival Hamas faction that controls Gaza. The US may possibly be working quietly for a Kadima-Likud coalition with the support of a few others so that President Obama has the advantage of a more amenable government to tilt the balance towards peace in West Asia.

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