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Israel's New Government: What a Difference Three Years Makes

Israel's New Government: What a Difference Three Years Makes

By Pierre Atlas - March 27, 2009

On March 28, 2006, Israelis went to the polls to elect the 17th Knesset and put a new centrist party, Kadima, into power. Three years later, the government that will lead the 18th Knesset is finally taking shape. The differences between the new government and the previous one are striking. In both Knesset elections, Kadima won the most seats in Israel's parliament. But any similarity between the two elections ends there.

With Kadima's founder Ariel Sharon incapacitated by a stroke a few months before the elections, his deputy, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. Labor, with 19 seats, joined Kadima in the governing coalition. In 2006 the Israeli electorate had moved to the center. The majority of Israelis--skeptical that a negotiated two-state solution would be achieved in the foreseeable future, and wanting Israel to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state--had come to believe that Israel's best option was to unilaterally redraw its borders and separate itself from the Palestinians. They overwhelmingly supported the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, and as many as 80 Knesset members were expected to support Kadima's "convergence" plan to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank.

That was Olmert's plan, anyway. His ambitious goals came to a thundering crash with the Second Lebanon War (which erupted less than four months after the election), the Weinograd Commission reports on his poor wartime leadership, the increased Hamas militancy in Gaza, and Olmert's own bribery scandal, which ultimately brought down his government.

If the March 2006 elections reshuffled the political deck in Israel, the February 2009 elections reshuffled it again. One of the biggest shockers three years ago this week was the collapse of Likud. Winning only 12 seats that year, Likud dropped to a dismal fourth place. No one could have imagined then that, three years later, Netanyahu would be forming the next Israeli government.

But last month--in the shadow of Israel's devastating but inconclusive Gaza incursion--the majority of Israelis abandoned the center and voted for parties on the political right. Likud more than doubled its representation in parliament, from 12 to 27 seats. Although Netanyahu's party received one vote less than Kadima, the makeup of the incoming 18th Knesset shifted noticeably from the 17th. The majority of MKs supported Netanyahu, and he, not Kadima's Tzipi Livni, was chosen to form the next government. Technically he has until April 3 to present his government to President Shimon Peres, but it has already taken form: a coalition with Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) led by the secular, ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, the Sephardic religious party Shas, and a deeply divided Labor Party, led by current Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Lieberman's party, which came in third after Kadima and Likud, increased its status from merely a Russian immigrant party to a major political player. But while Lieberman is known for his racist attitude toward Israel's Arab minority, advocates Jewish settlement expansion, and in the past has called for bombing Iran, his willingness to give Arab parts of Jerusalem to a Palestinian state angers traditional rightists, and his radical secularism antagonizes the Jewish religious parties. Shas' spiritual leader declared prior to the election that, "Whoever votes for Lieberman gives strength to Satan." Nevertheless, in a cynical move to maintain control over social expenditures, Shas has agreed to join with Lieberman in Netanyahu's coalition government.

In another indicator of the shift to the right in 2009, this time Labor was trounced. The founding party of Israel, which had been led by such luminaries as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, came in fourth with only 13 seats, its worst performance ever. Labor has been relegated to a second-tier party. And now that Barak has made the highly controversial decision to join Netanyahu's government, Labor might split in two and become even more politically insignificant.

The best-case scenario--for Israel and for the prospects of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict--would have been a grand coalition of the Israeli mainstream: Likud, Kadima, and Labor. Such a "national unity" government would have held a whopping 68 seats, and with it the power to make major foreign policy decisions and much-needed electoral reforms that could reduce the destabilizing influence of the smaller parties. Netanyahu did try to recruit Kadima before he went to Lieberman, but Livni did not want to play second fiddle.

Netanyahu has vowed to continue negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and he may be willing to cut a deal with Syria on the Golan Heights. But Lieberman has been promised the foreign ministry, and his inflammatory rhetoric will not serve him well as Israel's chief diplomat. Will Barak temper Lieberman's radicalism and keep Netanyahu from moving too far the right, or will the weakened Labor leader become a mere fig leaf for a hard-line government that reduces, and perhaps forever closes the possibility of a two-state solution? The future direction of the peace process, of the US-Israel relationship and Israel's long-term security may all depend on who wields the greatest influence over Benjamin Netanyahu--Avigdor Lieberman or Ehud Barak.

Meanwhile, Kadima will sit in the opposition. What a difference three years makes.

Pierre Atlas is an associate professor of political science and director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian University.

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