Friday, February 20, 2009

Israel's new government taking shape?

The LA Times as well as other sources are reporting that the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party did so well in the recent elections, has thrown his support to the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, which makes it almost certain that he will be asked to form the next government and serve as prime minister. None of this comes as a real surprise, of course. But what's increasingly interesting are the possible twists and turns in store now on several fronts. US relations with Israel are likely to turn a bit frosty, with a new US president committed to finding a new way forward in the Middle East now having to deal with a new Israeli PM who has never believed in the peace process with the Palestinians, or in the advisability of either evacuating the West Bank settlements or bringing into being a viable Palestinian state. (Not that, of course, Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party was ever any bargain as far as the cause of a Palestinian state was concerned.) The hardness of Netanyahu's position will only be augmented by the fact that, for his new government to survive, he has to play ball with a political partner whose stance on these issues is even farther to the right than is his.

The challenges to Obama and to the Palestinian leadership will grow, obviously. But there may be an up-side, of sorts. The three-way minuet of the US, Israel, and Mahmud Abbas as they danced around any real progress on the "peace process", is over. Both Hamas and a perhaps resurgent Fatah in the West Bank (with Mr. Abbas likely facing ouster now) can have no doubt which way the wind has turned, and may well adopt a much tougher and more insistent stance toward Israel. There's even some talk of a resumption of the intifada in the West Bank, in which Hamas and Fatah just might find common cause. Increased violence means, of course, increased suffering, which no one can want or hope for, but a reunification of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation will likely raise respect for Palestinian nationalism around the world and draw international support to their cause.

That support will be even easier to attract, of course, with the wounds of Gaza both fresh and even more visible as journalists and delegations (including two US congressmen, one of them Keith Ellison of Minnesota, whose public statements reflect their disgust with Israel's acts) visit there and report on the horrors still so evident on the ground and in local hospitals. In the US, calls for US colleges to dis-invest from companies supporting Israel's military are growing. Students at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and at New York University have occupied campus buildings and called upon their administrations to take action. A groundswell of criticism and opposition to Israel's policies has grown within large elements of the American Jewish community. (The Mondoweiss blog, now being jointly fed by Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz, has been reporting on this steadily for many days.)

The US Congress, of course, may still insist that Israel's security be the US's pre-eminent foreign policy concern. But how staunch can that usually reliable support remain for an Israeli government, soon to be in place, one of whose top ministers (and I speak here of the execrable Mr. Lieberman) is on the record with statements about Arabs that have been nothing less than racist - indeed, genocidal, if one considers his comment that an appropriate Israeli solution for Palestinians opposed to Israel might be one like what the US resorted to against Japan at the end of World War II? Perhaps Netanyahu will try to sequester Lieberman in some lesser cabinet post as a way of keeping him out of the klieg lights of global opinion, but he will need to accommodate Lieberman's views and policy prescriptions or else face the possibility of losing his coalition - and with it, his prime-ministership.

Indeed, all of this just may give Mr. Obama the opening he needs to begin to move away from the Israel-first assumptions that have dominated the foreign policies of US presidencies going back at least to Bill Clinton. Such a shift would undoubtedly help pave the way to some workable rapprochement with Iran, and might even enable the US to bring in Iran as a partner in some program to stabilize the situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Iran surely has an interest in damping down the zeal of anti-Shiite Sunni fundamentalists like the Taliban.

But perhaps most importantly, by taking a principled stand against a Netanyahu-Lieberman government, Mr. Obama could make giant strides to re-establish an image of the US across the Muslim world - including those young men who otherwise might be flocking to the banners of al-Qaeda and the Taliban - as a champion of fairness and justice in the global arena.

From the Los Angeles Times

Israel ultranationalist Lieberman backs Netanyahu

The move almost guarantees that the Likud party leader will be the next prime minister and lead a right-wing coalition government less inclined to negotiate with Palestinians
By Ashraf Khalil

4:52 PM PST, February 19, 2009

Reporting from Jerusalem — Conservative opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu today moved closer to winning the Israeli prime minister's post, gaining the endorsement of ultranationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman in a development likely to slow any movement toward a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Lieberman, having assumed a kingmaker's role thanks to his party's third-place finish in recent parliamentary elections, threw his support behind Netanyahu after meeting with President Shimon Peres, who ultimately must decide whether to ask Netanyahu or moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to form a governing coalition.

The action increased the likelihood that Netanyahu will run the Israeli government with a narrow right-wing coalition that observers predict would encourage the controversial growth of settlements in the occupied West Bank and clash with the Obama administration over the pace and scope of Mideast peace negotiations.

Lieberman, whose Israel Is Our Home party captured 15 of 120 seats in parliament, urged Netanyahu to form a broad unity government that included Likud, which won 27 seats, and Livni's Kadima, which won 28. Livni quickly replied that she would not serve in a "right-wing extremist government under Likud."

A government led by Netanyahu and Lieberman would be "a bad combination for America's interests," Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said at a Georgetown University panel discussion this week. "It would be much more difficult for the right wing, even with determined American leadership, to advance the peace process."

Peres has been meeting with party leaders all week, and could announce his decision on forming the government as soon as Friday. Whomever he chooses will have 42 days to assemble a coalition that receives 61 votes of approval in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Peres has until Wednesday to pick either Livni or Netanyahu. He invited both party leaders to meet him separately Friday and could urge the pair to find a way to work together.

Both Livni and Netanyahu lay claim to the premiership, Livni by virtue of her narrow popular victory and Netanyahu because the rightist tilt of the post-election landscape gives him a better chance of gathering the necessary votes. Netanyahu has expressed a desire for a broad coalition including Kadima, but has been unwilling to meet Livni's price of a rotating premiership, with each serving two years.

A cartoon in Thursday's today's edition of the Maariv newspaper showed Netanyahu and Livni in bed together reading the Kama Sutra. Netanyahu says: "Whatever you want, as long as I'm on top."

Theoretically, Netanyahu, Livni and Lieberman could find common ground on domestic and social issues in a unity government. All are secularists, particularly Lieberman, whose mostly Russian immigrant support base wants to see civil marriage instituted in the Jewish state.

All three have a working history with Likud dating to Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister in the mid-1990s. Lieberman was his chief of staff and helped Livni land her first high-level government job. Lieberman and Livni remain on good personal terms, although neither has overly warm relations with Netanyahu.

The three's positions diverge sharply on the issue of negotiations toward an independent Palestinian state. Livni backs continuing U.S.-endorsed peace talks and is willing to concede much of the West Bank and at least discuss the division of Jerusalem. As foreign minister under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she led a year of lackluster negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that showed few public signs of progress.

Netanyahu believes it's too soon for final status negotiations and recommends years of economic development in the West Bank and strengthening the Palestinian Authority first. Lieberman technically supports the idea of a Palestinian state, but is lukewarm on the current process; he recently drew accusations of racism by advocating that Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens be forced to take a loyalty oath.

Although Lieberman said his endorsement of a Likud-led government was dependent on a willingness to include Kadima, he also sided with Netanyahu in saying Livni would have to give up her main demand of rotating the top post. Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, he said, "Bibi must get used to the fact that this will be a broad government and not a narrow one, and Tzipi will have to get used to the fact that there is no rotation."

Livni and her lieutenants quickly rejected the notion of serving as an unequal partner in a Likud-led government. In a text message sent out to Kadima members, Livni said it would be impossible to reconcile Netanyahu's politics with Kadima's, particularly on the peace negotiations.

"Bibi's natural partners are not our partners, and are not partners who share our way," Livni wrote. "I do not intend to double-cross the faith my voters placed in me in order to promise myself a job in the government."

Given the nature of Israeli political negotiations, Livni's statements could simply prove to be last-minute hardball tactics. But there are few political benefits and serious risks for her to join as anything less than an equal partner to Netanyahu.

Livni successfully broadened Kadima's centrist tent this election by courting a new pool of leftist voters alarmed by the rise of the right. She consistently promoted herself as the only candidate who could deliver a viable peace deal. Many of those new supporters would view it as a sellout if Livni agreed to serve under Netanyahu.

"Livni cannot compromise on conceding the diplomatic process. We can not betray the trust of a quarter of a million voters," said Kadima parliament member Tzachi Hanegbi in a radio interview.

Likud officials happily proclaimed that Lieberman's backing gave them a minimum of 65 Knesset seats and the right to form the next government. But that math is by no means rock-solid.

It assumes the inclusion of both Lieberman and several right-wing religious parties that view his civil marriage policy as an attack on the Orthodox rabbinate's authority. Shas, the largest of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which holds 11 seats, openly vilified Lieberman in the days before the election.

Lieberman would have a hard time backing off his civil marriage demand, a crucial issue among his supporters and potential deal breaker for the religious parties. Tens of thousands of Russian immigrants with Israeli citizenship cannot be wed because they aren't viewed as Jewish by rabbinical authorities.

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