- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s victory in Wednesday’s Kadima Party primary sets the stage for a roller coaster ride toward national elections that will likely occur next year. The dovish Mrs. Livni, who was leading by 10-12 points in pre-election polls, eked out a narrow 43 percent to 42 percent victory over Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who took a hawkish stance on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Mrs. Livni is an enthusiastic supporter of negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as is the Labor Party, Kadima’s major partner in the current governing coalition, which is headed by current Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Public opinion polls suggest that a plurality of Israelis are much closer to the views of Mr. Netanyahu than they are to Mrs. Livni and her Labor Party allies.

Kadima was formed almost three years ago by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon, who helped found the Likud Party during the 1970s, said Israel needed an alternative to Likud, which generally opposed concessions to the Palestinians, and Labor, which is associated with the Oslo peace process of the 1990s - something many Israelis regard as a failure. As Kadima Party leader, Mr. Sharon put withdrawing from Gaza at the center of his political agenda. The plan was implemented three years ago with the unilateral pullout from Gaza. But the move did not result in an improved security situation for Israel; instead, it was followed by an increase in rocket attacks and the creation of a Hamas terror state. And in January 2006, after Mr. Sharon was incapacitated by a massive stroke, he was succeeded as prime minister by Ehud Olmert, who was elected to a full term two months later.

But Mr. Olmert was badly damaged by Israel’s failure to defeat Hezbollah in their summer 2006 war and the military’s inability to stop the attacks from Gaza. The fatal political blow came in the form of multiple corruption investigations, none of which has resulted in an indictment. In the end, Mr. Olmert’s failings as a wartime leader, combined with the continuing criminal investigations, were enough to force him from office. Mr. Olmert will remain prime minister for now in a caretaker government. Under a complicated legal formula, Mrs. Livni will likely have until February to assemble a new coalition, and if she cannot, a national election would likely occur by early spring. In order to form a new government, she faces a number of significant challenges. The governing coalition comprises 67 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and 12 of those seats are held by Shas, a fractious party dominated by very Orthodox Jews, and seven more by two feuding factions of the Pensioners Party - all of which are likely to drive hard bargains to remain in the governing coalition.

Early elections would be good news for Likud, the current favorite. Its supporters argue that Kadima has no mandate to run the country, pointing to the fact that only about 40,000 people voted in the ruling party’s primary to in effect choose a new prime minister for the entire nation, which has a population of more than 7 million. But if Mrs. Livni can form a new government in the coming months, she would earn the legal right to postpone the next elections until late in 2010. Kadima and Labor may be gambling that, given more time, they could achieve a peace agreement with Mr. Abbas and make the next election a referendum on that deal.

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