Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Morning After: An Analysis of the Israeli Political Landscape

The Israeli elections ended with two and a half victory speeches and one concession speech.

The biggest loser was clearly the Labor Party (HaAvodah). Despite Barak’s star performance in the recent Gaza operation as Defence Minister, the party that had dominated the Israeli political landscape since inception, that had ruled without loss for the first 30 years of nationhood (as Mapai and the Alignment) is tonight no longer a force in Israeli politics. It came in a dismal fourth place, having secured only 12 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. Israel’s voters, the sons and daughters of socialists, have firmly rejected the left. The Labor party would do best to stay in opposition and regroup, as Likud has done in recent years. The only scenario in which it is likely to be in government is in a national unity government alongside Likud and Kadima (where it may place the national interest over party politics).

Livni, the woman who called these elections having failed in her previous attempts in coalition building, claimed victory after securing first place. Kadima’s 28 seats reflect a one seat margin over Likud and a one seat loss from its position in the last Knesset. Within the span of three years, Kadima experienced two elections; the loss of its founding fathers (Sharon and Peres); a bogged corruption scandal; a worsening security situation; two controversial wars; and a likely recession. Livni delivered an excellent result for her party and should be proud of beating the pollsters. She ran a good campaign, and made the most of the last minute momentum Kadima experienced, buoyed by a high voter turnout. That said, having secured first place, she is back where she was when she called these elections, unable to form a stable coalition.

The other victory speech came from Netanyahu, the man most likely to be Israel’s next prime minister. With all the cards stacked against Kadima, this was his election to lose, which he did. He ran the classic frontrunner’s campaign (firmly rejecting Livni’s repeated requests for a debate) and ended up in second place. On the flip side, Netanyahu led the Likud back from its meagre 12 seats in the last Knesset to a political beast of 27 seats and most importantly, as the leader of the national block, he can thwart attempts by Livni to form a government. He is therefore most likely to become Israel’s next prime minister.

The Russian-immigrant- secular-nationalist party, Israel Bateinu (‘Israel is our home’) claimed half a victory, having delivered 15 seats that may well hold the balance of power in the next Knesset. This result (below polling expectations but above its 11 seats in the last Knesset) moves it from fifth place to third place, surpassing the Labor party. Avigdor Lieberman will play both sides to his advantage. Having ran on a platform that is more nationalist than Likud, he has recently proclaimed that his party cannot be assumed to recommend Netanyahu as the next Prime Minister and may indeed recommend Tzip Livni (if the price is right) or indeed himself for the top job.

Over the next few days, Tzipi Livni would be trying to mend fences with all those who would be happy to see the end of Kadima and try to ensure Shimon Peres gives her the first crack at forming a coalition – an unenviable task. Meanwhile, Bibi Netanyahu would be forming a block that would prevent her from governing. In between the rounds of meeting with political allies and foes, they may well play with Ynet’s recently-released game Build Yourself a Coalition. No doubt, Bibi would be having more fun than Livni. He is more likely to get the message “You can form a government” and far less likely to get the annoying popup: “Your coalition is politically unreasonable”.

Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, may find himself in the awkward position of handing the premiership to his former nemesis, the man who beat him in the 1996 elections, and the man who lost the current elections. He would probably much rather hand the reins to the woman whose party won these elections, to the party he co-founded, and to the people continuing the vision of the partners he lost along the way (Rabin and Sharon). Peres may well facilitate the formation a national unity government with a rotational approach, like the one he entered with Yitchak Shamir following the 1984 election deadlock. Barring that, Peres is bound to choose the candidate most likely to form a stable government, and like it or not, that person is Binyamin Netanyahu.

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