So much rides on Israeli prime minister election

By Ed Gold

Israel’s election results on Feb. 10 may help determine whether the Obama-Clinton-Mitchell diplomatic effort can enhance the slimming chances for peace in the Middle East.

The Israelis don’t make it easy for themselves or their friends, despite being a vibrant democracy and our very important ally. To win a national election in Israel, a prime minister must put together a majority coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Making this an ordeal is the fact that more than 40 parties will participate in the election, many representing parochial interests and very disparate objectives.

Three major parties dominate the scene, but not one of them is likely to get even 30 percent of the vote.

At this writing, the nationalist, right-wing party, Likud, holds a modest lead over its key opponents. Should Likud prevail at the polls and succeed in piecing together a parliamentary majority of 62 votes, the already-tenuous peace process, backed by the so-called quartet of the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations, would almost assuredly be out of business.

Likud’s leader is Benjamin Netanyahu, a consistent opponent of a two-state solution and one who considers negotiations with the Palestinians a sham. While his campaign slogan — a play on “Yes We Can” — is “Together We Can Succeed,” in reality, he represents a hopeless and cynical point of view.

Take for example, the endorsement he received from the Orthodox publication Magnus Zionists:

“Electing Bibi” — Netanyahu’s nickname — “will be another recognition that Israel has run out of ideas and out of fresh faces that can bring hope… . His election can only place in sharp relief the weariness of the Israeli people.”

Yes, this was an endorsement!

Fortunately, two other parties with important followings will contest for prime minister.

The Kadima Party, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is now in a deep coma, will field the nation’s current foreign minister, Tzipora Livni, often called “Tzipi, who almost put together a government last fall when the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, facing corruption charges, gave up the Kadima leadership.

Livni then tried to form a new government. The Labor Party signed on but she could not win over any of the key religious parties. She tried particularly hard with one of them, Shas, offering them a lot of financial help for its school system. The stumbling block was, in fact, directly related to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Shas refused to permit partitioning Jerusalem to be discussed with the Palestinians, but Livni would not take Jerusalem off the table.

Livni’s stance is historically amazing. Her father was a leader in Irgun, a Jewish killer organization during the British occupation of Palestine before the U.N. partition.

Livni, who has been a member of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, was a Likud activist until Sharon formed Kadima. She has since become a strong supporter of a two-state solution. When she failed to form a government last fall, this February’s election became inevitable.

Labor decided to contest for prime minister in the person of Ehud Barak — a former prime minister who once beat out Bibi for the job, and at that time formed a government with Shas, removed Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, and participated in the failed Camp David peace effort, along with Bill Clinton.

Barak, currently defense minister and Israel’s most decorated war hero, was in charge of the recent Gaza operation, which apparently has helped his political standing.

Like Livni, Barak favors a two-state solution, and when he was prime minister he said he would hold an Israeli plebiscite on the status of East Jerusalem.

Should Kadima and Labor somehow stitch together a parliamentary majority, they then would be faced with the stickiest issue in working out an arrangement with the Palestinians: What to do about West Bank Jewish settlements?

Since the ’67 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank, settlements have continued to expand in an area central to the viability of a Palestinian state.

All Israeli governments since ’67 have permitted, even at times encouraged, further settlements in the West Bank.

The liberal Peace Now organization, which maintains a “settlement watch,” reports that of an estimated 150 settlements sanctioned by the government, 88 have actually expanded despite a plea from the quartet to freeze expansion. There are also 30 unauthorized new settlements that the government has ignored.

In addition, right-wing religionists continue to maintain squatter rights at tiny outposts sprinkled inside the West Bank.

To protect settlers, Israel has an estimated 300 military checkpoints in the West Bank, and has built new roadways linking settlements, but precluding their use by the Palestinians.

The Israeli behavior on the West Bank has encouraged religious fanatics to insist the West Bank is part of a biblical Israel, adding historic Judea as well as Samaria to the existing Jewish state.

Of course, Israel has a right to security, a right to protect its citizens from suicide bombing and missile attacks. Israel’s difficulties have been exacerbated by Hamas terror which has turned Gaza, since the Israelis left, into a missile base with indiscriminate shelling into southern Israel.

Militarily, Israel is so much more powerful than Hamas that, ironically, it becomes Goliath to Gaza’s David. The high civilian casualty rate in Gaza has further injured Israel’s reputation in the world. The apparent weakness of Fatah, the Palestinian organization, which believes in negotiation, adds to the difficulty in pursuing the peace process.

It should be noted that the two most active Israelis involved in the Gaza venture have been Barak and Livni, both hoping to gain some political advantage. Biibi’s position, of course, is that he opposed the Gaza evacuation in the first place. If the Israeli public approves the invasion results, Bibi will say it should have happened sooner; if the action proves unpopular, he will say he would have done it more effectively.

Meanwhile, the Obama victory puts a new twist on American activity in the Middle East. The naming of George Mitchell as emissary means serious involvement by the United States from the start of the Obama presidency.

Obama has already made a few other interesting moves. He has joined with Egypt in an effort to seal the tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza, cutting off military supplies to Hamas. He has made clear that he will not deal with Hamas as long it calls for Israel’s destruction.

Obama has been on the phone with leaders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Fatah to make sure they recognize his interest.

At the State Department, he demonstrated his nuanced approach, stating: “Our hearts go out to the Palestinians and civilians who are in need of food, clean water and basic medical care,” adding that Israel’s blocking of border crossings had made life that much more difficult. He added that Israel had a right to silence missile sites which have been firing at random into Israel proper.

The Gaza invasion and the killing of more than 1,000 Palestinians have already set back negotiations; but there is clearly a split in the Arab world on Hamas and its Iranian supplier. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and a host of smaller states see Hamas, supported by Iran, as a threat.

But should Bibi triumph in the election, Israel could be left with two terrible choices: Remain as a permanent occupier of a land, which will drive more Palestinians into acts of terror; or eventually become a single state, which eventually will have an Arab majority, ending the life of the Jewish state.

Those of us who support a vibrant, progressive, democratic ally in the Middle East hope the Israelis also prove to be politically smart on Feb. 10.