- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Israel’s election last week still has not produced a clear winner, with both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from the centrist Kadima Party and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory, while Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu is waiting in the wings, hoping to give one or the other the extra numbers it needs to form a majority government.

The penultimate word lies with President Shimon Peres, who, as demanded by the constitution, is to call on Mrs. Livni or Mr. Netanyahu to form the new Cabinet. Penultimate, because the final say may really be with one of the smaller parties that have the power to give Likud or Kadima the push it needs to form a majority and win approval of the Knesset. Mr. Lieberman hopes his party will be the kingmaker, or the queenmaker, as the case may be. Meanwhile, the situation remains rather murky.

“With the final results now in, horse trading over the forming of a new government in Israel is very much under way,” says Daniel Levy, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and at the New America Foundation. Mr. Levy adds, however, that the results are likely to “produce the messiest of political outcomes. … Anything but clarity.”

Yet one thing that is clear is that Israel’s electorate appears to have moved to the right. Or rather, one may ask, is it that Israel’s politics (and subsequently, its political parties) have inched slightly to the left? At least, where Kadima and Likud are concerned. Yisrael Beiteinu is a different story.

But as Mr. Levy points out, Israel’s three largest parties are in one way or another linked to the Likud. Kadima came into being when Ariel Sharon seceded from Likud; “Livni,” says Mr. Levy, is a “former stalwart Likudnik.” Mr. Levy calls Kadima “Likud-lite.”

Second is “the brand name version” led by “Bibi” Netanyahu, which Mr. Levy calls “traditional Likud.”

And then there is Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Homeland), led by a longtime Likudnik and the party’s former director general, Avigdor Lieberman, and his deputy, Uzi Landau, who sat in the Knesset for 22 years representing Likud. “Lieberman rebranded the Likud for a Russian audience and gave it a nasty and overtly racist edge,” says Levy, who adds, “Let’s call this Likud gone wild.”

Together, all three parties account for 75 of the 110 seats in the Knesset.

Gone wild indeed. Yisrael Beiteinu’s platform consists, among other points, of a demand that Israeli Arabs would have to take a loyalty test or have their citizenship rescinded. Mr. Levy calls the power accrued by Yisrael Beiteinu “sinister and disturbing” in view of “Lieberman’s racist statements.”

Mr. Levy goes on to compare Mr. Lieberman to Europe’s ethnonationalists, xenophobic and anti-immigrant parties such as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, the late Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria or Belgium’s Vlaams Blok. Ironically, Mr. Lieberman himself is an immigrant from Moldova.

Mr. Lieberman’s attack targets “Arab inhabitants whose presence here long preceded his,” says Mr. Levy.

The final outcome of Israel’s elections will affect not only the Arabs of Israel. If Mr. Lieberman gets to have a say in the country’s politics, it will affect Israel’s future relations with the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese and, to a lesser extent, much of the Arab world - as it will, of course, impact U.S.-Israeli relations.

Of the three versions of Likud - the “light,” the “regular” or the “extreme” - at the end of the day, the winner will be Likud, in one form or another. However, it can be the new, rejuvenated Likud, appearing as Kadima, which will look to finalize the peace process with the Palestinians and in all probability will engage Damascus in serious peace talks.

It could be the stale brand under Bibi, which very much will mean business as usual; in other words, stalemate in the talks with the Palestinians in the West Bank, more strife with Hamas in Gaza and quite possibly a new war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian track under Mr. Netanyahu could go either way, and pre-emptive action against Iran may be more likely than under Mrs. Livni.

Or it could be Likud extreme, or gone wild (as Mr. Levy calls it), that will have a say in the way the government is run, in which case the Middle East would be taking a giant step backward and Israel’s politics could become, well, extreme.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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