- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

TEL AVIV

Barack Obama’s coattails may extend all the way to Israel.

With the Jewish state set to choose its next prime minister less than a month after Mr. Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration, candidates Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu are competing to cast themselves as Obama-like champions of change, clean government and bipartisanship.

Mrs. Livni, the foreign minister and leader of the centrist Kadima party, calls for an end to partisan “factionalism.” Mr. Netanyahu, a former prime minister and leader of the hard-line Likud Party, argues that he is the candidate of change because Mrs. Livni’s party has been in power since it split from Likud three years ago.

The influence of the U.S. election shouldn’t be surprising, said Eyal Arad, a strategist for Mrs. Livni.

“Our political cultures are in such close proximity to each other. Israelis feel that they are close to Americans,” he said. “In a basic way they tend to inspire each other.”

That sentiment could reinforce the Israeli public’s longing for a leader free of police investigations that have become a pandemic among Israeli prime ministers.

Some observers say Mrs. Livni’s image as an honest broker untainted by corruption puts her in an ideal position to benefit from the change in the United States.

“I would count on the Obama effect,” said Hebrew University professor Shlomo Aronson. “Obama made it thanks to his role as something new. This seems, to an extent, also to be the case of Tzipi Livni. She also seems to be new, she seems to be clean and fresh.”

Mr. Netanyahu has his own case for change.

As if taking a page out of the Democrats’ playbook linking Republican candidate Sen. John McCain to President Bush, a Netanyahu aide sought to link Mrs. Livni to a comment Monday by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the need to divide Jerusalem as part of any peace deal.

“The person that has handled the negotiations with the [Palestinians] is Livni,” Gideon Sa’ar, a Likud parliamentarian, told Israel Radio. “The person who said immediately after her election [as Kadima party leader] that she would continue the policy of Olmert toward the Palestinians and the Israelis is Livni. Everyone knows there has been full policy cooperation between Olmert and his deputy.”

Mr. Arad, who once worked for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, cautioned that it is too early to say whether Mr. Obama’s coattails would prove decisive for either candidate.

National security issues, he said, will play a relatively more prominent role in Israel’s election than they did in the United States.

Still, anticipation of an Obama administration that stresses diplomacy over military force could highlight Mrs. Livni’s record as a peace negotiator compared with Mr. Netanyahu’s relatively hawkish positions.

My hunch is that Livni will benefit, because she is perceived as more diplomatically oriented. So why not lay the groundwork to establish a common denominator?” said Avi Ben Zvi, a Haifa University professor of international relations and a commentator for Israel RadioShe can use [her diplomatic experience] by saying, ‘I can do business with Obama, and it will be a better working relationship.’”

The appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel - the son of an Israeli physician who spent his childhood summers in the Jewish state - as Mr. Obama’s chief of staff has driven two lines of speculation about the future of U.S. policy toward Israel: Some say Mr. Emanuel’s presence is a sign that the president won’t press Israel into concessions. Others suggest that his Israel ties may insulate the new president from criticism if he does push Israel to be more conciliatory toward the Arabs.

A leading member of the Likud Party dismissed the idea of a coattail effect. “Israel is an independent state,” said Yuval Steinitz, who is hoping to be appointed defense or foreign minister in a Netanyahu government. “[Mr. Obama] will have no effect whatsoever.”

U.S. and Israeli elections have dovetailed in the past, but precedents don’t always point the same way. In 1977, a few months after Americans voted in Jimmy Carter to replace Gerald Ford, Likud’s Menachem Begin won in a landslide.

In 2001, Israelis chose Mr. Sharon to replace Ehud Barak shortly after President Bush was inaugurated. Mr. Sharon later broke from Likud to form Kadima, but was incapacitated shortly thereafter by a stroke.

Public opinion surveys give both parties about 30 seats in the Knesset - not enough to govern without a coalition - though the Likud right-wing bloc appears to have a slight edge.

Some analysts say that even a modest embrace of Mr. Obama’s agenda could tip the balance.

Hebrew University political science professor Avraham Diskin said that if the prevailing international winds favor peacemaking, it is likely to strengthen center-left parties.

“When there are winds of war and terrorist attacks, it strengthens the right,” Mr. Diskin said. “It looks as if there is something, almost a tie between the two [parliamentary] blocs. Even if we’re talking about a very minor difference, it could be decisive because the balance is shaky.”

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