The Missing Mandate


Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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Israel’s parliamentary elections have created a political landscape more confused and indecisive than anything the Jewish state has seen in decades. With two major parties evenly balanced, one eager for a negotiated peace with Israel’s neighbors, the other reluctant, the stage is set for weeks of horse-trading and intrigue. No party won a clear mandate to govern. And yet, Israel must be governed.

The most commonly discussed scenario is a coalition of the center, right and far right. Here’s what that means: freezing peace talks with the Palestinians, encouraging West Bank settlement and restricting the civil rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. Perhaps voters thought this would make them safer. The result would be the opposite.

Such a government would almost inevitably deepen Israel’s diplomatic isolation and spur new heights of anti-Israel rhetoric in the Muslim world. That, in turn, would weaken pro-Western Arab regimes, energize jihadists who feed off rage and worsen relations between Islam and the West. We’ve seen it all before.

But in the coming weeks it’s still possible to shape, if not a best-case scenario, then at least a least-worst one.

Tzipi Livni’s moderate Kadima party and Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line Likud both claimed victory February 10, but in fact they’re deadlocked. Kadima won the most votes, according to the initial ballot count, but its natural allies on the left won’t have the Knesset majority needed to seat Livni as prime minister. The parties on the right won an outright Knesset majority, but their standard-bearer apparently isn’t the largest party, which clouds Netanyahu’s claim to lead.

The man touted as the kingmaker is Avigdor Lieberman, the tough-talking, Soviet-born rightist whose contempt for Arabs made his Yisrael Beiteinu party the country’s third-biggest vote-getter. Whoever wins his favor gets his 15 Knesset seats — and, presumably, control of the house. He leans toward Likud, but he could go with Livni, since he favors territorial compromise as a way to reduce Israel’s Arab population. He’s a pragmatist.

Equally in play are 16 Knesset seats won by the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. They don’t oppose territorial compromise in principle. In effect, the game is wide open.

Now is a time for cool heads in Jerusalem. The sole guarantor of Israel’s future right now is a broad coalition of the two big parties, together with any smaller parties willing to work aggressively toward peace and able to maintain civil relations with Israel’s Arab neighbors — and Arab citizens.

We cannot discuss Israel’s elections without noting in sadness the blow dealt to Labor and Meretz, the political voices of Israel’s founding labor movement, the Forward’s sister movement. This movement built Israel from the ground up — tilled the fields, constructed the cities, fought the battles. In Israel’s early days the two parties were strong enough to rule without other partners — though they did include others, in the name of unity. With their reduction to rump factions, something fine in the Israeli spirit is diminished.

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