Kadima Edges Out Likud, But Winner Remains Uncertain

News Analysis

By JTA and Leslie Susser

Published February 11, 2009.
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Jerusalem — Although nearly all the votes have been counted, it’s still not clear who has really won the Israeli election.

Tzipi Livni’s Kadima emerged as the largest single party, but the right wing parliamentary bloc, led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, captured the majority of the Knesset’s seats. Kadima appears to have won 28 seats to the Likud’s 27, but altogether the right-wing and religious bloc captured 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

At post-election parties Tuesday night, both sides claimed victory.

Indeed, given the mixed result, both Livni and Netanyahu have a chance of becoming Israel’s next prime minister. Like two poker players in a high-stakes game, it could depend on who blinks first.

The strength in Netanyahu’s hand is that he has the votes to form a coalition with the hawks, at least some of whom Livni needs to form one comprised mostly of doves. The snag for Netanyahu is that he desperately does not want to form a narrow right-wing government that would be isolated on the international stage.

Livni’s strength is in the moral victory of her party having won most seats, and the fact that Israel’s president, who has the role of designating who gets first stab at forming a government, almost always gives the leader of the largest party first chance.

Unfortunately for Livni, the law clearly states that the task should be conferred on the Knesset member with the best chance of success. To determine who that may be, the president is supposed to consult with all the parties represented in parliament. If Netanyahu can keep his bloc together, a majority will recommend him to President Shimon Peres in consultations slated for next week. Still, the game is far from over.

Livni can pressure Netanyahu by refusing to take part in any government he leads, leaving him high and dry with the right-wingers. Netanyahu can pressure Livni by refusing to join a national unity government led by her, denying her a working majority in parliament. Both sides want a national unity government that cuts across the right-left divide; the standoff is over who leads it.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman could be holding the ace.

With 15 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu is now the third-largest party in the Knesset, ahead of Labor, which won only 13.

Although normally counted in the right-wing bloc because of his hard line against terror and harsh statements on Israeli Arabs, Lieberman says he is keeping his options open.

Indeed, on some issues Lieberman could find common ground with Livni. For example, both may favor changing the electoral system and introducing a form of civil marriage in Israel - issues that resonate powerfully among Leiberman’s heavily Russian immigrant support base. Lieberman could get more on these issues from Livni, who has no fealty to the religious parties, than from Netanyahu, who is committed to including the Orthodox Shas Party in his government. Shas is adamantly opposed both to electoral reform to civil marriage, which would end exclusive Orthodox religious control over marriage in Israel. During the campaign, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef described casting a ballot for Lieberman as “a vote for the devil.” In his election night speech, Lieberman vowed to get even.

It was significant that Livni’s first informal coalition meeting Wednesday was held with Lieberman. A few hours later, however, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader met with Netanyahu.

When push comes to shove, Lieberman probably would find it difficult to defect from the right-wing bloc to Livni’s camp. Most pundits believe that the show of keeping his options open is merely a tactical ploy for Lieberman to get more from Netanyahu — possibly the post of defense minister — in return for eventually supporting the Likud leader. Indeed, Lieberman makes no secret of the fact that he feels part of the “national camp,” and that, all things being equal, his clear preference would be for a right-wing government.

Another question mark over Lieberman is the fact that he is being investigated on serious fraud allegations. A ban on his serving in certain ministries could complicate coalition negotiations. So, what are the some of the coalition options?

• Narrow right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu and comprised of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, National Union and Jewish Home. This 65-seat coalition would be a stable government but would not give Netanyahu room to maneuver either on the Palestinian or Syrian peace tracks, and likely would be seen by the international community, including the new U.S. administration, as intransigent.

• Lieberman throws his support to Livni, who is able to bring Likud on board for an emergency national unity government for a fixed time period comprised of Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and Labor - a total of 83 seats — dedicated to one goal: changing the electoral system. Livni, Netanyahu, Lieberman and Labor’s Ehud Barak all said that the uncertain election results have underscored the need for reform.

• Livni blinks first and agrees to serve in a Netanyahu-led national unity government, comprised of Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and the religious National Home Party (83 seats).

• Netanyahu blinks first and agrees to serve in a similar government but with rotation of the prime minister – Livni for two years and then Netanyahu for two years. This is the compromise many pundits think might emerge. It gives Livni a chance to be prime minister and allows Netanyahu to head a government with a degree of peacemaking leeway and greater international legitimacy. This was the model adopted in 1984 by Shimon Peres, then head of the Labor Party, and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir. The difference then was that the two blocs, center-left and religious-right, were actually tied at 60-60.

Both Livni and Netanyahu would like to bring Labor into a governing constellation, with Barak as defense minister, given the huge regional challenges Israel faces, especially the Iranian nuclear threat. But because of Labor’s poor showing in the elections, the predominant feeling within Labor is that the party should stay in the opposition to rebuild.

Given these unprecedented election results, will Israel’s leaders be able to build a coalition to meet the country’s complex needs — a looming Iranian nuclear threat, terrorist groups armed with rockets on its northern and southern borders, and a potentially crippling economic crisis? Or will they have to agree on terms for changing the electoral system first?

What Livni and Netanyahu do over the next few days could be crucial — not only for the short-term, but for Israel’s long-term well-being.

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