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Israeli election cliffhanger

Final count of soldiers' votes may determine whether Livni or Netanyahu won election

Livni holds slight lead over Netanyahu, but Likud leader claims victory on basis of 'national bloc's clear majority'

Livni and Netanyahu court support of Lieberman party

Tzipi Livni | Bibi Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

The outcome of Israel's general election still hangs in the balance. Only when the last votes of Israeli soldiers and diplomats are tallied will it become clear whether Kadima's Tzipi Livni or the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu won the most votes. With over 99% of the ballots counted by hand, Livni leads by one Knesset seat, but that could change when the last soldier votes are tallied. Meanwhile both party leaders are claiming victory and already courting the support of Avigdor Lieberman who won third place.

Israeli voters went to the polls on February 10th, but it is still too close to announce the victor. It will take another couple of days for the final ballots to be tallied Meanwhile, Kadima's Tzipi Livni of the centre leading the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu by one seat in the 120 member Knesset. But that could with the last soldiers' votes that tend to favor a right wing candidate. If Netanyahu does pull ahead its game over and President Shimon Peres will obviously call upon the Likud leader to try and form Israel's next coalition government. However, an imbroglio rages over the possibility that Livni may maintain her slim lead. In that case, Livni contends President Peres should select her to form a new cabinet. Israeli law stipulates that the state president appoints the candidate for prime minister after consulting with all the parties that won seats in the new Knesset. Invariably, the president chooses the party leader who has won the most seats. But now Netanyahu and the various right wing parties argue that even if Livni does win more votes, the 'national camp on the right' commands an overall majority of some 65 seats, a clear cut majority in parliament. Therefore, they contend the Likud leader should become the next prime minister even if Livni winds up with one or two seats more.

Knesset - the Israeli parliament

This abnormal state of affairs is the result of over 10 parties winning seats in the election. The fact is that whether it's Likud or Kadima, Israel's ruling party will command less than 25% of Knesset seats. This obviously puts the prime minister and the ruling party at the mercy of his coalition partners and their demands in foreign, domestic and overall economic policy.

On the other hand, Kadima's Tzipi Livni contends that if she won more votes than Netanyahu that means the Israeli people want her to become prime minister. If she does maintain her lead over Netanyahu it will then be up to President Shimon Peres to resolve the issue.  In any case, the current standoff reflects the shortcomings of the Israeli electoral system and the outcome has aroused new demands for drastic reform. What can be said is that no matter what the final vote count will be, Tzipi Livni has proven to be a formidable campaigner by overcoming the substantial lead of Netanyau at the start of the race. She succeeded in drawing votes from on her left, from Labor and Meretz with her slogan of 'Vote Tzipi And Block Bibi!' The result is that Livni's campaign has literally devastated Israel's left-wing. Labor's Ehud Barak managed to muster only 13 seats with Meretz far behind with only three. Meanwhile a similar move took place on the right wing - Avigdor Lieberman's party drew votes from the Likud and the Shas ultra- orthodox party. It can be said that after subtracting Arab voters, who do not support Livni, the left wing of Israeli politics comprise less than 25% of the electorate.

the kibbutz collective communities based on a socialist ideology have always been the bastion of the left-wing parties. However, this time Kadima of the center received more votes from kibbutz members then did Labor and Meretz combined

Consider this: the kibbutz collective communities based on a socialist ideology have always been the bastion of the left-wing parties. However, this time Kadima of the center received more votes from kibbutz members then did Labor and Meretz combined. What explains this drastic shift is only due partly to the parties' leaders - it may have more to do with the prevailing mood in Israel today.

In 2005, Israel's then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out a unilateral withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip. Hamas then exploited this territory to further escalate their rocketing of the Israeli towns and villages across the border. In fact, that rocketing has been going on for some eight years reaching a crescendo last December, after a temporary lull by Hamas. Meanwhile, along the Lebanese border Hezbollah triggered the Second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. They launched a deadly cross-border operation that killed six Israeli soldiers, abducted two others and shelled Israeli communities along the entire frontier. All the while, Iran the sponsor of both Hamas and Hezbollah, continuously threatens to wipe Israel off the map as it continues its nuclear weapons program. The left wing's pleas for more Israeli concessions have rung hollow against this bleak reality. And while the Arab provocations continued unabated from the north and the south, Arab members of Israel's parliament the Knesset, voiced support for Hamas and Hezbollah while rejecting the very notion that the Jewish people were entitled to an independent state. In a word, many Israeli voters are fed up and expressed it when casting their ballots.

Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: Amit Shabi)

This also explains the rising popularity of Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu ( Israel 0ur Home). Lieberman ran a 'get tough' campaign. On Israeli Arabs he declared: 'No citizenship Without Loyalty' and proposes that citizens take an oath of allegiance. As for the Palestinians, Lieberman demands a bitter battle to the end with Hamas with no deals and no cease-fires. Addressing his cheering supporters after winning some 15 seats, Lieberman declared: "I say loud and clear there will be no continuation of the former government's policies that permitted Israel to be rocketed for eight years!" In domestic politics, the Lieberman ticket also called for the introduction of civil marriage. 

Faced with a new American administration that is going gung ho on Israeli - Palestinian negotiations, does Netanyahu want to be hamstrung by a far right coalition that will leave him with very litle, if any, room for diplomatic maneuver?

If Livni and Netanyahu do not join forces in a new coalition, they will each need Lieberman to form a new government separately. In they go it alone - Lieberman will be the king or queenmaker. In his post election rally, Lieberman expressed his preference for the Likud and that why is Livni will try hard to persuade him from not backing Netanyahu. Both Livni and Netanyahu immediately started courting Lieberman for his support. So much for the background.

Netanyahu has already started to corral a right wing majority of at least 61 Knesset members who will recommend him to President Peres. This would block her chance of forming a coalition even if she maintains her present one seat lead. On the face of it, Netanyahu has a far better chance of forming a new coalition government. But here's the rub! Faced with a new American administration that is going gung ho on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, does Netanyahu want to be hamstrung by a far right coalition that will leave him with very litle, if any, room for diplomatic maneuver?  That is why Tzipi Livni and her Kadima colleagues are working on the idea of a deal with Netanyahu for a national unity government. This might also include the rotating of the premiership - it's not as unusual as it sounds. Labor's Shimon Peres and the Likud's Shimon Peres shared the premiership back in the 80s. However, the Likud's Dan Meridor, with a lot of political savvy, admits that a broad Likud- led government is the preferred option but he also rules out the idea of any rotation with Livni. 

David Essing

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