The Formation of Israel’s Next Government
The Formation of Israel’s Next Government
By Sarah Ann Haves
The official Israeli election results from the Central Elections Committee were published in the public records today, Wednesday, February 18, 2009. Israeli President Shimon Peres can now begin consulting with Knesset factions with the goal of determining which Knesset member should try and form the next government coalition.
His invitation comes on the heels of political maneuvering by both Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, leader of the Kadima Party and Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party. Both leaders have been courting Avigdor Lieberman, head of Israel Beitenu, the third largest party in the next Knesset. He seems to be the kingpin that will help Peres decide whether to initiate talks with Livni and Netanyahu towards the formation of a national unity government, with or without power sharing.
Livni won the February 10, 2009 general election by a narrow lead, but she will have a hard time putting together a successful coalition. The left-wing parties she has a natural alliance with lost votes due to an Israeli population swing towards the “right.”
Netanyahu enjoys strong support among a majority of Israel’s new incoming Knesset members, especially those who align themselves with the right-wing bloc. His chances of forming a successful coalition are greater than Livni’s, but he needs Avigdor Lieberman’s support….something that won’t come easily.
At least 65% of Israel’s citizens want to see Livni and Netanyahu form a national unity government, one that would last the full four year term until the next election in 2013. However, Livni wants a rotation system, giving her a chance at being prime minister for two of those years. Netanyahu, on the other hand, wants to be prime minister for the full term, but is willing to give Livni almost equal power sharing in his government.
Meanwhile, divisions remain among Israelis on core issues that involve future political, diplomatic, and military decisions. There’s a weakness in Israeli foreign policy strategies set by leaders because of these divisions. The election results indicate the continued polarization between Jew and Arab; left-wing and right-wing; secular and religious.
Israel is about to swear in its 32nd government in 60 years of statehood. Since 1988, no Knesset has served out its full term. There’s always been a coalition crisis that instigates early elections.
As Israel’s political parties bicker over who will head the next government, one thing is certain. Electoral reform will be on the agenda of the 18th Knesset. This may be Israel’s most fractured government to-date. The electoral system needs the reforms to create political stability. There are too many factions pursuing single-interest issues. There is not enough cohesiveness between major political blocs. There is little unity among Israeli leaders except around one core issue — Iran.
Currently, a political party trying to get into the Knesset needs to garner 2% of the votes in the general election. Those members of the Knesset who want electoral reform will try to raise that threshold to, perhaps, 5%. In the U.S. there are two major parties elected to Congress — Democrats and Republicans. In Israel’s recent election, 12 parties made it past the electoral threshold, and all will be represented in the 18th Knesset.
LOSSES AND GAINS
The Labor Party lost a substantial amount of votes in this recent election. Citizens remember the indecisive military victory at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Amir Peretz, Labor party chairman at the time, was inexperienced in his position as Defense Minister during that war. Israelis haven’t forgotten how humiliated they felt about the government’s conduct, and how weak Israel’s Defense Forces (the IDF) performed at the time.
Current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, one of the most decorated generals in Israel’s history, was somewhat successful in overseeing Israel’s battles with Hamas in the recent Gaza war. Yet, his Labor Party still lost votes in the recent general election. Perhaps, this is because of the party’s on-going liberal approach to the peace process. Israelis have become tired of continually giving concessions to the Palestinians while ending up with more grief than peace.
Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beitenu experienced a significant surge in popularity during the election campaign. Lieberman’s main point of contention has been with the Israeli Arabs living inside the State of Israel. He wants to introduce a Citizenship Law in the Knesset. It would require all citizens, including Israeli Arabs to sign a loyalty document; learn the national anthem; and express their loyalty to the Jewish State.
Lieberman’s tough attitude towards Israeli Arabs has garnered favor among Israeli Jewish citizens. They want the nation to appear strong and not weak in the face of Arab hostility — both inside and outside the country.
Lieberman has not ruled out joining a Kadima or Likud-led coalition government. His party stated their objectives clearly throughout the election campaign, wanting to address the problems in Israeli society, and hoping to change the status quo. Israel Beitenu is demanding alterations in Israeli law to accommodate civil marriages; and, his party is looking for solutions to simplify the conversion process to Judaism. These demands are already being considered by Livni and her Kadima Party. Netanyahu’s Likud Party has to bridge the gap between Lieberman’s demands and those of Orthodox parties who also want to sit in the coalition. But, it is Lieberman who now carries the power and influence needed for Livni or Netanyahu to put a stable government together.
Interestingly, 20% of Israeli Arabs voted for Jewish parties rather than Arab parties during Israel’s general elections. A surprising number voted for United Torah Judaism (UTJ), a right-wing Haredi party. UTJ called on the Arabs to help them battle the influence of Israel Beitenu, because they considered Lieberman racist towards the Arabs and too secular towards the ultra-Orthodox Jews.
A total of 21 women will sit in the next Knesset, the largest number ever to be in the legislative body since the state of Israel was born in 1948.
FOREIGN POLICY DIFFERENCES
Livni supports a two-state solution — Israel, side-by-side, a Palestinian state. She also supports a withdrawal from most of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). She has negotiated on the division of Jerusalem. And, though her position on the Golan Heights is not clear, those political parties aligned with her will probably agree to negotiations with Syria on a peace agreement that would include a withdrawal from the Heights.
Netanyahu is more of a hardliner. His national security strategy is to develop military strength to prepare for battles against Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and to keep Syria in check.
Though Netanyahu doesn’t rule out a type of Palestinian state in the future, where the Palestinians will have some kind of self-rule, he wants to take a different approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. He does not want to be pushed by the international community to work out a “land for peace” deal with the Palestinians.
Reciprocity is important to Netanyahu. He wants to see the Palestinians do their part to crackdown on terror, collect weapons from terrorist groups, stop incitement on the streets and in the schools. If the Palestinians show a willingness to advance in peace negotiations at this level of reciprocity, Israel will do its part to open borders, stop building in settlements, and consider giving more military oversight to the Palestinians in the West Bank.
In addition, Netanyahu wants to approach peace negotiations from the bottom-up. He has a plan that would provide economic incentives to help the Palestinian build a better life. His idea is to introduce massive financial investment into the Palestinian sector. He is also calling for regional cooperation with Jordan.
Livni prefers the topdown approach. She seems to want to carry forth with a diplomatic process, looking for a solution that requires an international agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once an agreement is finalized, and approved by Israel’s Security Cabinet, Livni would most likely look to Israeli citizens to fulfill their obligations to the Palestinians, obeying the rule of law. Forcing settlers to withdraw from their homes in the West Bank could start a civil war.
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to actively and aggressively push for a two-state solution in the Middle East, within the context of a comprehensive peace in the region, most likely focusing on the Arab Peace Initiative.
Likud Knesset member, Dr. Yuval Steinitz, spoke to this writer about the Arab Peace Initiative in an interview conducted during the Jerusalem Conference in January 2009. “The good element is that this is the first time the Arab League is calling for general peace with Israel by all the Arab states. This is positive. But, the request for a total withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and the partition of Jerusalem, is totally unacceptable. Even President Obama recognized Israel’s need for defensible borders. And, therefore, I believe this is a non-starter. It is the same in the mentioning of the return of (Palestinian) ‘refugees’ into Israel, which is totally unacceptable. So, let the Arab League change this initiative in order for us to be able to consider it.”
However, if Livni becomes prime minster, it is expected that she will approve entering into negotiations with moderate Arab states in line with the Arab Peace Initiative. Several of Israel’s left-wing leaders see it as a starting point in negotiations, even though Arab states say it is a non-negotiable plan.
Meanwhile, in his second day in office, Obama attended the State Department ceremony that appointed George Mitchell as the new American envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is an experienced and tough negotiator, and he may very well prod, push, and exert his influence on the peace process to get concessions out of Israel and the Palestinians.
At the State Department, Obama signaled to the world that he plans to apply substantial pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to end the conflict. Furthermore, it is expected that he will look for the two parties to reach a final status agreement during his reign in office.
According to the assessment of one Middle East analyst, Obama’s foreign policy team is made up of centrists who have a pragmatic approach to this region. His team seems to encompass the center position of the Democratic Party.
If Israel forms a national unity government, it will be in line with a centrist approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that way, either Livni or Netanyahu could get along with Obama and the American Democratic Congress. But, if Netanyahu forms a narrow coalition with right-wing parties, he may find himself at odds with an Obama Administration whose focus may be to push Israel into a regional peace deal.
Many Likud members in Netanyahu’s own party, along with the right-wing bloc that are his natural partners, are hesitant about a “land for peace” deal happening now. Since it appears that Obama favors this idea, because he wants to form an alliance with moderate Arabs countries to bring calm to the region, this already shows the possible friction that may occur between Israeli and U.S. leaders in the future.
An additional point for concern is that, since the Gaza war, fewer Americans are supportive of U.S. ties with Israel, although Congressional support for the Jewish state remains strong.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry will continue to court members of the U.S. Congress, the Jewish community, and grassroots America in order to garner public support, as a cornerstone of Israel’s foreign policy efforts. But, whether it is Livni or Netanyahu at the helm of Israel’s next government, how each of these leaders flows with Obama’s foreign policy initiatives will determine if the U.S.-Israel relationship will be a smooth or rocky road in 2009 and beyond.
“For unto us a Child is born. Unto us a Son is given. And, His name will be called, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace, there will be no end; Upon the throne of David and over His Kingdom; to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this.” Isaiah 9:6-7
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting from Israel on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues affecting the nation.
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Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.