America Turns a Page, and Israel, Well...

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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The contrast could hardly be more stark. In America, after a rough-and-tumble (and incredibly long) presidential campaign, a page has been turned. No, more than that: Volume 43 has been closed, shelved out of sight, while Volume 44, its newness discernible to touch and to smell, sits open, inviting, only a couple of pages so far filled in. For all the chaos and crisis almost wherever we turn, there is new hope, and an outpouring of respect and affection for President Obama.

And in Israel? Whatever else may be said of this week’s elections in Israel, they hardly start a new chapter in Israel’s history. Instead, they offer the prospect of more of the bleak same.

America: Think back to the post-election scene at Chicago’s Grant Park. It wasn’t just Oprah and Jesse Jackson who were visibly crying, tears of release; it was many of the thousands gathered there to greet the new president, and hundreds of thousands if not millions more across the country, watching the celebration from their homes. The ocean of goodwill that attended the event may prove to be no more than a month-long spasm. But the brisk sense of new possibilities is like a dose of pure oxygen administered to a system that had been choking. Breathe deep.

Israel: If you breathe deep in Israel, you inhale the particulates of an atmosphere stagnant, polluted. The big issue in the weeks before the election was the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, he whose campaign slogan was, “No loyalty, no citizenship.” (The slogan was a shorthand for the Lieberman proposal that Israel’s Arab citizens, who account for about 20% of Israel’s population, be required to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state in order to enjoy the full rights of citizenship.)

But Lieberman, who in some pre-election polls was predicted to win 18 or 19 Knesset seats, was held in the election to 15 — enough to make his Yisrael Beiteinu party Israel’s third largest, but not enough to support the fears of a dramatic lurch rightward in the electorate.

Lieberman aside, there were no great surprises in the election. Early on, Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to be the big winner; in the end, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima edged out Netanyahu’s Likud. Ehud Barak and Labor came in an ignominious fourth, staggering but still alive. The Haredi parties ended up with 16 seats. It is not easy to read “the will of the people” in all this, and it is harder still to figure out who, in the end, will lead the new government — meaning who will be able to cobble together a 61-seat majority in the Knesset.

Truth is, the will of the people is all over the map. Twelve parties each took a large enough chunk of the vote to garner representation in the Knesset, a situation that will almost surely persist until the electoral system itself is reformed. Election results are inevitably muddled, and the current muddle is especially opaque — an accurate reflection of the widespread view that preserving the status quo is about the best that can be hoped for. People in Israel are tired of all the fruitless talk of peace. Diabolically, however, the status refuses to be quo. It is dynamic, and corrosive. Attitudes harden, possibilities narrow, atrophy.

Therein is the contrast with the United States. Though it’s the rare conversation in America these days that doesn’t at least touch and more often linger on the economy — on people we know who’ve been directly affected, on people we’ve read or heard about, on our own fears — there is withal a confidence that things will get better. The economists warn us that it may be a long while before we’ve recovered, and there are already millions of people whose lives have been turned upside down. Yet the overall mood of the nation remains positive.

In some part, that owes to Obama himself, to his unflappable demeanor, to the fact that just three weeks into his tenure he seems to the manor born, to the aura of magic that still surrounds him. The sundry missteps of these early weeks notwithstanding, Grant Park and the Inaugural itself still linger. But there’s something more at work here. It turns out there’s a reality to all those clichés about American optimism, American resilience. On July 4, the clichés seem bloated. But in this winter of our hardship, they seem entirely on point. And why not? Does not the history of this nation warrant more than a measure of confidence, even in the face of our current troubles? Indeed, does not the improbable election of Barack Obama reinforce that confidence?

What now in Israel? President Shimon Peres will likely invite Livni to form a government. She is unlikely to succeed without inviting Netanyahu and his Likud to be part of the governing coalition. Netanyahu will have to weigh whether to decline and hope Livni will fail so that he will then be asked (by the president) to try and cobble together his own governing coalition. Netanyahu commands a more or less obvious right-wing majority of 63, including Lieberman and the religious parties (who decisively do not get along with each other).

It will be very messy for a while; the likeliest outcome is a national unity government, including Kadima, Likud and Labor, a total of 68 seats, perhaps with a rotation in the prime-ministerial position. That outcome would be a prescription for continuing stagnation and for new elections in 18 months or so. It would be a message to the Palestinians that they have no partner for peace. (Pity George Mitchell.) It would be a decisive confirmation that in Israel, new possibilities are still beyond the horizon.


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