Feb 092009
Authors: Josef Federman

JERUSALEM – Israel’s election has suddenly become too close to call, though hard-liners are expected to have a clear edge in the horse trading that is sure to follow Tuesday’s vote.

The fractious coalition government likely to emerge could complicate efforts to create a Palestinian state and pose big challenges for President Barack Obama, who has made achieving Middle East peace a top priority.

The race pits former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes giving up land in the name of peace, against Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a centrist who hopes to become the country’s first female leader in nearly 40 years.

For months, opinion polls have predicted a decisive victory by Netanyahu’s Likud Party. But new polls released over the weekend showed Livni’s Kadima Party closing the gap. Neither is expected to get more than 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, however, meaning the winner will have to form a coalition with smaller parties.

Netanyahu seems to be in a far better position, since his natural allies in the nationalist right wing of Israeli politics are all polling well. In particular, Netanyahu’s former protege, Avigdor Lieberman, appears poised to make huge gains on a platform that calls for Israeli Arabs to swear loyalty to the state or lose citizenship.

While Livni could still eke out a victory, it appears mathematically impossible for her to form a coalition without bringing in Lieberman or some other hard-line party. That would hinder her ability to pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as she has promised to do.

Still, polls have often been inaccurate in Israel. This time the pollsters’ task is even more difficult, because turnout is expected to be low and a plethora of small parties could upset the whole equation. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of voters remain undecided.

The strength of the Israeli right is a reflection of the times. Israel recently wrapped up a three-week war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip to try to halt years of rocket attacks into southern Israel. The right criticized the government for failing to go all the way and end Hamas rule over Gaza.

“In the end, there won’t be a choice but to topple the Hamas government in Gaza,” Netanyahu told the French-language Guysen TV on Monday. “That’s clear. The job wasn’t completed in the latest operation and we will have to complete it later.”

Throughout the campaign, Livni and Netanyahu have tried to outdo each other with their threats against Hamas.

Livni, who has been the government’s chief negotiator in talks with Hamas’ rival, the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank, wants to continue those negotiations, which would require a large West Bank withdrawal as part of an agreement. She has repeatedly urged voters to choose “hope” over “fear.”

Netanyahu says any land handed to the Palestinians will be used to launch attacks against Israel. He points to the experience of Gaza, which was overrun by Hamas after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the area in 2005.

Instead, Netanyahu says peace talks should be limited to building the Palestinian economy – a position rejected by the Palestinians and unlikely to win favor with Obama.

“We will not deal with any Israeli government that isn’t fully committed to the peace process and the two-state solution,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Both Livni and Netanyahu say they will work to ensure that Iran, Israel’s archenemy, does not obtain nuclear weapons. But Netanyahu takes the toughest line and is seen as most likely to contemplate a military strike on Iran. That, too, could put him at odds with Obama, who favors talking to Tehran.

Although Netanyahu has talked of forming a broad-based government, he has taken great pains to stress his hard-line credentials in the closing days of the campaign – the result of Lieberman’s growing popularity.

Over the weekend, he visited a West Bank settlement overlooking Israel’s international airport and vowed never to withdraw from the area. On Sunday, he traveled to the Golan Heights and declared he would never return the strategic plateau to Syria.

Netanyahu has been careful not to openly criticize Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu Party has catapulted past the venerable Labor Party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak into third place in the polls.

While it is unlikely that Lieberman could carry out his pledge to strip disloyal Arabs of their citizenship, a strong showing in the election could give him a big voice in foreign policy. His penchant for stirring up controversy – Lieberman has called for bombing Iran and said Egypt’s president could “go to hell” – could strain Israel’s relations with the international community.

Lieberman’s rise in the polls has dominated what otherwise has been a dull campaign.

The public seems to be weary from the recent Gaza fighting as well as a notoriously unstable political system that has yielded five elections in the past decade. Perceptions that none of the leading candidates are particularly inspiring has only added to the malaise.

“The reason no one knows who they are voting for is because they don’t believe in anyone,” said Bella Gabyb, 80, a lifelong resident of Jerusalem. “I will go, but I don’t know for whom I want to vote. I will decide tomorrow.”

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