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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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Election campaign emphasized security issues

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With Israel’s Jan. 22 general election less than a week away, the stars seem aligned in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favour. Nearly four years after cobbling together a right-wing government, he seems poised to regain the premiership. Polls suggest that the right-wing bloc, spearheaded by Netanyahu and his partner, Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, will most likely defeat the forces of the centre-left.

In the 2009 election, Netanyahu’s Likud party won 27 Knesset seats, one less than the centrist Kadima party, then led by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister. But after she failed to form a government, Netanyahu stepped in and assembled a workable coalition in league with secular and religious allies.

The center-left bloc – consisting of Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor party, Livni’s Hatnua party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party – will probably not win enough seats to topple Netanyahu and company. Still, Yachimovich and Livni have both called for a united centrist front to counter the right. It probably will not come to pass. Personal rivalries, as well as Lapid’s announcement that he may yet serve in a government led by Netanyahu, have diminished the chances of a centrist union.

Judging by surveys, the centre-left will at best amass 54 seats, leaving the balance of power in the hands of Yisrael Beiteinu and another rightist party, Shas, which are in Netanyahu’s camp.

Last October, pundits predicted that the newly formed Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list would win 47 parliamentary seats. But since Lieberman was indicted on corruption charges and forced to step down as foreign minister, the list has lost some of its lustre. Pollsters now claim the pair will pick up as few as 32 seats.

There is a wild card in this equation. Thirty-one per cent of voters appear to be undecided. A significant number of them are centrists, a constituency that could affect the outcome of the election. 

Nevertheless, Netanyahu is best positioned to win a second consecutive term, notwithstanding his recent warning that the centre-left bloc may somehow overtake him.

Despite his ideological predispositions, Netanyahu may yet decide to establish a pragmatic, politically broader government, in which case he will look to the centre. It would not be an unprecedented occurrence. Last spring, Netanyahu formed a short-lived alliance with Mofaz, Livni’s successor as leader of the Kadima party, which was established by Ariel Sharon after he left the Likud in 2005.

Within two months, the Netanyahu-Mofaz partnership unravelled over a disagreement regarding the enrolment of haredi yeshiva students in the armed forces.

Realistically, in light of recent developments in the Likud, Netanyahu is not likely to try to create a centre-right government. Last November, Likud unveiled a strong right-wing slate of candidates for the 19th Knesset, dropping moderates and elevating hardliners in preparation for the election.

Likud moderates such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan were assigned slots that do not guarantee them seats in the Knesset. By contrast, far rightists like Danny Danon, Yisrael Katz and Moshe Feiglin won “realistic” slots.

Likud’s further drift to the right – a development that mirrors Israel’s rightward lurch since the Six Day War, the Oslo peace process and the second Palestinian uprising – was also embodied in a recommendation made by Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein. He urged the government to annex Area C, the site of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Further evidence of Israel’s movement toward the right will manifest itself should a victorious Netanyahu invite Naftali Bennett’s ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party into his coalition. As of this week, Bennett’s party was expected to win upward of 18 seats.

Although many Israelis are focused on socioeconomic matters, this election campaign has turned mainly on security and diplomatic issues, as in in the past.

Netanyahu has taken credit for maintaining a robust economy during a global recession, but he has largely dwelled on conflict management problems.

First and foremost, he has spoken of his role in convincing the international community to curb Iran’s budding nuclear program. Beyond Iran, he has talked about preserving Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, deterring Hamas in an eight-day border war, expanding the coverage of the Iron Dome anti-missile system and building a security fence along the Egyptian border.

He claims he supports the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state, provided the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and agree to end the conflict. By the same token, he has promised to strengthen Jewish settlements in the West Bank and cautioned against rushing into an agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu’s commitment to Palestinian statehood has been sharply questioned by two important Likud stalwarts. Gideon Saar, the education minister, has declared that Netanyahu’s formula of “two states for two peoples,” enunciated in a Bar-Ilan University speech in June 2009, was never part of Likud’s election platform. Meanwhile, backbencher Tzipi Hotovely has described Netanyahu’s speech as merely a tactical manoeuvre to placate the United States.

Hotovely’s revealing comment has been seconded by Yuval Diskin, the former director of the Shin Bet, and by Livni. Diskin has accused Netanyahu of insincerity in endorsing Palestinian statehood, while Livni has observed, “Today, the whole world knows that this speech was just lip service, a mask for moderation on an extremist face.”

Mofaz, the former defence minister, has been just as critical. Claiming that Netanyahu is far too focused on Iran, at the expense of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, he has warned that Israel may well morph into a binational state unless the Palestinian issue is settled. In a reference to the demographic threat facing Israel, he observed, “In a few years, we will no longer have a Jewish majority, and we will become South Africa of the previous century.”

Yachimovitch has concentrated on socioeconomic issues, but she has called for an immediate renewal of talks with the Palestinians on the basis of the Clinton parameters, which were accepted with reservations by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2000. These guidelines, drawn up by the Clinton administration, envision a Palestinian state in about 95 per cent of the West Bank and in all of the Gaza Strip.

The Clinton parameters surfaced when Ehud Barak, the then Labor party leader, was Israel’s prime minister. Defeated in the 2001 election, Barak eventually joined Netanyahu’s government as defence minister. In 2011, he left the Labor party and formed the Independence party. Although he still holds his job, Barak recently disclosed he would not run for re-election. Whether he stays on as defence minister in a Netanyahu cabinet remains to be seen.

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