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Israel's Perplexed Voters

President Shimon Peres (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 The Israeli election campaign has entered the home stretch with all the polls indicating that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu party will win more seats than other. As things stand, Netanyahu could form a new coalition government with Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party and the ultra-orthodox parties that could command a 63 seat majority in the 120 member Knesset. However analyst David Essing reports that the Left and Centrist parties contend there are as twenty seats that could be decided by floating voters; this means there is still a chance of closing the gap and forging a blocking majority. In any case, state President Shimon Peres will consult with all the parties that win seats and ask them whom they support for prime minister. Peres will then decide which leader has the best chance of forming a new coalition and authorize him or her to commence negotiations on building a coalition that will command a 61 seat majority in the Knesset.

 Is there a chance of an upset in the upcoming Israeli election? Every single poll has forecast that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his party will win more Knesset seats than any other and therefore be called upon by President Shimon Peres to try and form the new coalition government. However with so many parties in the running and some 20 seats still up for grabs, a surprise is possible. Consider this: ever since Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman merged their two parties on October 29th, their Likud – Beiteinu has slipped dramatically in the polls from a grand total of 45 to 32 in the 120 member Knesset. How come? Netanyahu and his cohorts contend that because the PM appeared to be a shoo-in, Likud supporters were taking the liberty of backing the far Right Naftali Bennett, who is considered a safe bet to be in the coalition. Bennett even jumped on the band wagon with posters showing himself and Netanyahu side by side, as if a vote for Bennett was actually a vote for Netanyahu.

Bennett by the way favors unlimited settlement building on public lands in Judea and Samaria, proposes the unilateral annexation of Area C that is under Israeli control as well as categorically rejecting the two-state solution. So like-minded Likudniks figured they could support Bennett because Bibi would still win without their votes. In addition, some Sepharadi Likudniks did not take kindly to the sudden inflow of a bunch of Russian politicians who were shunting them aside on the joint Likud – Beiteinu Knesset list. As a result, Netanyahu and his Likud cohorts are now pleading with these wayward Likudniks to 'return home'! Otherwise, Bibi might lose.

Netanyahu and Lieberman

This also explains part of Netanyahu's seemingly rash decisions that were designed to please the Right wing. First and foremost, the announcement to build an Israeli community in the E-1 area that links Jerusalem with the settlement town of Maale Adumin and which is perceived as making it tougher to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank. For good measure, Netanyahu threw in a building package of 3,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This sparked President Barack Obama's outburst that was leaked to American reporter Jeffery Goldberg smack in the home-stretch of Israel's election campaign. In brief, 'With each settlement announcement Netanyahu is moving Israel to near total isolation. And if Israel becomes more of a pariah state and loses its last steadfast friend, it won't survive'. Moreover Netanyahu was a political coward who was unwilling to spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise with the Palestinians. One might have thought that this would trigger a campaign firestorm in Israel but it hasn't. First, most Likudniks don't like Obama and think he's pro-Arab. On the other hand, Israeli voters from the Center-Left actually like Obama much more than they do Netanyahu. (Ironically hard-liner Yair Shamir, son of the late Likud Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir, who has joined Lieberman's party, said on record that Netanyahu tends to 'zigzag on points of principle'.) When asked to comment on Obama's personal diatribe, Netanyahu has just told Channel 1 that 'President Obama is aware that I never back down when Israel's vital interests are on the line'.

But will Netanyahu be able to repeat what Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last March: "After my election, I have more flexibility"? That obviously will depend upon the nature coalition he will be able to forge and whether he will have to include Bennett and his extreme positions. Moreover, even inside his own Likud ranks has a growing number of hardliners including Moshe Yaalon, a former IDF Chief of Staff, who is a natural choice for defense minister. Yaalon declared recently: "There is no room for a Palestinian state in Judea & Samaria (West Bank). Several other leading Likud ministers such as Gidon Saar and Gilad Ardun as well as as a number of back-benchers share this view. On the other hand, after excluding the two-state solution from the Likud- Beiteinu platform, Netanyahu has said he still stands behind his two-state proposal but that sounds like a cry in the Likud wilderness.

On the other side of the electoral divide Shelly Yechimovich, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni are going after each other hammer and tongs, trying to corral those voters who oppose settlement building and truly want a territorial compromise with the Palestinians. Their game-plan is to build a blocking majority of 61 Knesset members that could bar Netanyahu from forming a new government. To do this they are banking on the far Left Meretz party and the Arab parties and the latest polls indicate they might muster 57 seats. But Likud- Beiteinu, Naftali Bennet and the ultra-orthodox parties would garner 63 seats. Then in the post election consultations, if they all inform President Shimon Peres they recommend Netanyahu, then the incumbent PM will most certainly get first crack at forming a new coalition. Then the coalition horse-trading will commence and Netanyahu could try and bring in Yair Lapid or Tzipi Livni instead of Naftali Bennet. Such a move would give Netanyahu more diplomatic leg room to maneuver in the new international initiative that will soon be launched by the European Union.

In light of Obama's diatribe, Netanyahu had better not count on the U.S. rallying diplomatic support for Israel. And in case anyone has forgotten, the latest round of IAEA contacts with Iran have again flopped – Tehran will not agree to international inspection of its Parchin facility where it is suspected of conducting research on producing a nuclear weapon.

David Essing

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