SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem - The identity of Israel's next prime minister and the future of the Middle East peace process will be decided in a neck-and-neck election Tuesday that most pollsters say is too close to call.
Nearly 30 percent of Israel's estimated 5 million voters remain undecided among the two leading candidates: right-wing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, and centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who says she is committed to peace talks and withdrawing Jewish settlements from the West Bank.
Until this week, Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, who has also pledged to remove "Hamastan" from Gaza and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by any means necessary, seemed to be heading for a narrow victory and a possible coalition with a band of smaller, hawkish and religious parties or with Livni's ruling center-right Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
But seven polls published Thursday and Friday projected Likud and Kadima would each win 25 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. The job of prime minister is assigned by the president - mainly a figurehead position - to the Knesset member with the best chance of forming a viable coalition government in light of election results.
During the campaign, doubt over the peace process with the Palestinians has been a major factor. Many Israelis fear the Palestinians are hopelessly divided between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and their political rival Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Moreover, the recent 23-day war in Gaza not only revealed Hamas' huge arsenal of weapons aimed at Israel but also left Hamas still in control - dashing hopes that Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza would prompt Palestinians to create a model for their future state that could live in peace with its neighbor.
"The complexity of the situation after the Gaza war leads most Israeli Jews to favor a grand coalition bringing together Netanyahu, Barak and Livni," said Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Last September, Netanyahu looked like a certain winner after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would resign over corruption allegations, and Livni, his replacement as Kadima Party leader, proved unable to form a new coalition.
But five months is a long time in Israeli politics.
Olmert's alleged financial dealings have faded from public debate and been replaced by worries over Gaza and a deepening economic crisis. And Netanyahu's position as the unassailable leader of the Israeli right has been overshadowed by the sudden popularity of the Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu party, or Israel Is Our Home Party, led by the pugnacious Knesset member - Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's former chief of staff.
Since Russian speakers make up more than 10 percent of the Israeli electorate and lean heavily toward the right, polls suggest his party could replace Labor as Israel's third-largest party.
Lieberman, a former bar bouncer who immigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1978, still speaks Hebrew with a strong Russian accent. His campaign slogan is a direct challenge to Israel's 1.7 million Arab citizens, many of whom identify with the Palestinian cause: "Without loyalty, there is no citizenship."
Lieberman has proposed initiatives demanding every citizen swear loyalty to the state or lose the right to vote or run for office, and pushing areas with heavy concentrations of Arabs outside Israel and under Palestinian jurisdiction in return for annexation of West Bank Jewish settlements.
"Israel is under a dual terrorist attack, from within and from without," Lieberman said this week. "And terrorism from within is always more dangerous than terrorism from without."
Israeli Arab leaders have angrily charged Lieberman with racism - an accusation given weight by comments made by some of his party colleagues who publicly advocate the emigration of Israeli Arabs.
"This is the backlash of some Israeli Jews against what they saw during the Gaza war as the support of many Israeli Arabs for the Hamas side," said Avineri.
Not surprisingly, Netanyahu has redirected his campaign in past weeks at keeping Likud supporters from migrating to Lieberman's party, while projecting an image of fiscal and diplomatic expertise to attract moderates concerned about the nation's economic crisis and maintaining cordial relations with the new Obama administration.
Livni, who says she is confident of victory, has presented herself as the new face of Israeli politics, the first female candidate for prime minister since the legendary Golda Meir and the leader most likely to work closely with President Obama.
"Livni is seeking to demonstrate that a woman can be a tough leader in tough times," said David Makovsky, head of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute.
Israel's electoral system
Since Israel's multiparty system has never produced a majority for a single party, parties that receive the most votes must form coalition governments.
On Tuesday, 30 parties will compete for 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. The Israeli electorate votes for a party, rather than for individuals, with a minimum requirement of 2 percent of the vote to take a seat.
Currently, the center-right Kadima Party leads with 29 seats, followed by the center-left Labor Party with 19 and the right-wing Likud party with 12.
In recent years, centrist parties aiming to break the Likud-right, Labor-left grip on power have been one-shot wonders.
But if Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu wins Tuesday's election, he has expressed a preference to form a unity government with Kadima and Labor, which are expected to control more than 70 seats. That would blunt the power of smaller parties that typically make budgetary and policy demands that have torpedoed previous Israeli coalitions, including Netanyahu's first administration in 1999.
A Likud-Kadima-Labor hold on power also could alter the traditional shape of Israeli politics and reduce the power of fringe parties.
- Matthew Kalman
This article appeared on page A - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle