Fractured Israel vote gives right-wing parties a leg up

jerusalem  |  Two days before national elections, Benjamin Netanyahu planted a tree on the Golan Heights as a gesture to show he has no intention of returning the strategic plateau to Syria.

During the campaign, the Likud Party leader also vowed to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza and said he wouldn’t hand over more territory to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank until an “economic peace” is achieved between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Netanyahu ends up getting the chance to lead a coalition government — and given the outcome of this week’s election, he might — the question of whether Netanyahu will stick to these hard-line positions may be determined in large part by the coalition he puts together.

This time, Netanyahu says, he has no intention of repeating the mistake he made in his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999: relying on a narrow, right-wing coalition to govern. Given the conflicted nature of the election’s outcome — in which Kadima won the most seats as a single party but the Likud-led right-wing bloc captured the most seats as a bloc — a broad-based national unity government may be in the cards.

If Netanyahu is the one to lead it, he’d have a lot more room to maneuver than last time around.

In the mid-1990s, Netanyahu also ran a hard-line campaign, but as prime minister wound up handing West Bank territory over to the Palestinian Authority and even secretly negotiating with the Syrians over the return of nearly all of the Golan.

His term helped give Netanyahu a reputation as someone who cannot be trusted — a reputation his opponents tried to exploit in this campaign.

Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu carry signs before his Feb. 4 campaign appearance at the outdoor market in Jerusalem. Netanyahu could become Israel’s next prime minister. photo/jta/brian hendler

Ten years on, Netanyahu has worked hard to rehabilitate his image. But he remains something of an uncertain quantity to Israelis, and the question stands: What, exactly, would Israel be getting in a Prime Minister Netanyahu?

The first time around, he introduced the “reciprocity principle” by which Israel would make concessions to the Palestinians only in return for substantive gains. As a consequence, Netanyahu constantly found himself navigating between U.S. pressure to carry out Israel’s commitments under the Oslo Accords and domestic right-wing pressure against handing over more West Bank territory.

He ended up pleasing no one. His territorial concessions in the Hebron agreement and the Wye River agreement antagonized the right, while his general intransigence and perceived arrogance alienated the Clinton administration.

Plagued by petty financial scandals and perceived political ineptitude, Netanyahu became extremely unpopular. He was forced to call an early election in May 1999 and was trounced by Barak by a margin of more than 12 percent.

As of late, Netanyahu has ridden the Israeli public’s disaffection with the left-wing’s peacemaking efforts and Kadima’s failed efforts at unilateral withdrawal. But a party to the right of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, benefited even more in recent weeks, as its support rose while Likud’s poll numbers stayed flat.

In the end, Likud scored 27 seats, the biggest gain in the Knesset from the last election in 2006, but less than projected two months ago. Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 seats, and altogether, the right-wing and religious bloc captured 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Kadima lost a single seat, dropping to 28 but still beating out any other single party.

Indeed, given the mixed result, both Livni and Netanyahu have a chance to become the next prime minister. However, Netanyahu said Feb. 11 he will not settle for a rotating, shared premiership.

“We received a mandate from the people,” Netanyahu said during a Likud faction meeting. “We shall turn to our natural partners, and later aim to expand the government. There will be no rotation.”

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 composed mostly of doves. The snag for Netanyahu is that he 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 the most seats and the fact that Israel’s president, who has the role of designating who gets the first crack at forming a government, almost always gives the leader of the largest party the initial opportunity.

Unfortunately for Livni, the law clearly states that the task should be conferred on the Knesset member with the best chance of success. 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 with only the right-wingers. Netanyahu can pressure Livni by refusing to join a national unity government she leads, denying her a working majority in parliament.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman could be holding the trump card. With 15 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu is now the third-largest party in the Knesset, ahead of Labor, which won only 13.

On some issues Lieberman might even find common ground with Livni. For example, both may favor changing the electoral system and introducing a form of civil marriage in Israel. Netanyahu is committed to including the Orthodox Shas, and Shas is adamantly opposed both to electoral reform and civil marriage, which would end exclusive Orthodox religious control over marriage in Israel.

Livni’s first informal coalition meeting Feb. 11 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. Indeed, Lieberman makes no secret of his clear preference 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.

Once the dust clears and it becomes clear who is prime minister and with what coalition, the real work will begin: dealing with the threat of Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, and managing the economy at a time of global economic dysfunction. contributed to this report.