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Middle East: Collision course

11/03/2008

2009 will bring a brave new world to the Middle East. Very probably, Barack Obama will be elected president of the United States tomorrow, and he will bring about significant changes in the style and perhaps the content of United States policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But the elections that should interest us most are those which are going to take place, and those that will not take place closer to home.

Experts have been saying for quote a while that the Israeli government is unstable and heading for elections. Eventually, like the clock stuck at 1:35 PM, they had to be right. True, the decision to go to elections had little to do with rational considerations and should not have been predictable, but predicting the irrational is a safe bet in this neck of the woods. I confess, I didn't see this one coming.

The problems faced by Tzipy Livni in forming her coalition were familiar and relatively trivial. The Labor party caused some symbolic problems for her (see "Why is Barak making a Bardack?) but quickly came around and settled for just about nothing. But the ultraorthodox Shas party wanted money. It was ostensibly money for poor people and social needs, but the important point was that it was money that Shas would control and that would go to Shas target constituencies, and that it was money that the government does not have.

Ultraorthodox parties that want money are not exactly a new feature of Israeli politics. It is quite an understatement to say that Livni should have anticipated this problem. At the same time, Livni wanted freedom to negotiate openly with the Palestinians about Jerusalem, rather than clandestinely as has been done hitherto in deference to the official Shas veto on Jerusalem negotiations. Shas spokespersons hinted that this was not necessarily a problem. Nonetheless, in a surprise move, Livni stopped the negotiations and threw in the towel before the allotted time for trying to form a government had expired.

The Arab world seems to have largely welcomed the elections in Israel, in the belief that a right wing leadership is "holding back" the desire of the Israeli public for peace and that new elections would put into power a dovish government. A Palestinian observer, for example, wrote that a majority of Israelis favor concessions in Jerusalem, but their rush to give up Jerusalem is being thwarted by the Shas party voters, who represent only 10% of the electorate. The observer badly misread Israeli public opinion. The latest poll found that 55% of Israelis are against even discussing the issue of Jerusalem in negotiations with the Palestinians. It is unlikely that more than a few percent would be willing to give up sovereignty of all of East Jerusalem as Palestinians demand.

Zippy Tzipy Livni no doubt relied to some extent on summer polls that gave her Kadima party a slim lead over the rival opposition Likud led by Benjamin Netanyahu. But calling for early elections has always been dangerous in Israel, as Zippy Tzipi should have known. . Yitzhak Rabin was possibly the first to learn that, when his call for early elections in 1976 unseated the Israel Labor party and brought the Likud to power for the first time. Shimon Peres's call for early elections in 1995 brought Bibi Netanyahu to power, and Ehud Barak's early resignation in 2000 brought the right wing (at the time) Ariel Sharon to power.

Come autumn, the Kadima party leads of the summer polls fell like autumn leaves. Recent polls show the Likud and Netanyahu in the lead or at worst tying Kadima, and all the polls predict that Israel's Labor party, a vital part of any center - left government, would find itself with 10-17 seats as opposed to the current 19. The huge variablility between the polls is mostly due to differences in allocation of votes between Kadima and Labor, who together might get 38-43 seats, far less than than their combined total of 48. Of course, the polls have been wrong before and will be wrong again, but precisely for that reason Zippy Tzipi should have known that a coalition in the hand is worth two in the polls.

Autumn is springtime for Bibi and the Likud, winter for Tzipy and peace. New Likudniks are being minted each day as the groundswell for Netanyahu grows. Benny Begin has come out of scientific retirement, and Effie Eitam and Daniel Seaman of the Israel Government Press office as well as former IDF spokesperson Miri Regev are all evidently eager to jump on the bandwagon. At the far end of the political spectrum, beyond the right wing Likud, an even more right wing party may be forming from remnants of the National Religious Party (NRP) and the National Union party. They make Bibi look like a pacifist.

Tzipy Livni has a few months to try to eke out an election victory over her more experienced rival, Bibi Netanyahu. Tzipy has a poor power base for this fight. Ehud Olmert, Livni's rival, who was ousted by her, is still running Kadima, and is unlikely to give Livni much of a basis for joy or any room for achievements she can market to the public. He is even rumored to prefer Bibi Netanyahu to not-so-Zippy Tzipi, and he despises the hapless Ehud Barak. Remember that it was Barak, the brilliant analyst, who started the whole process when he announced that he would pull the Labor party out of the coalition unless Ehud Olmert resigned. But Barak's critics either hate him because he did make the move or because he didn't do it soon enough. Either way, he seems to have engineered his own downfall and that of his party. Those who wanted to get rid of Ehud Olmert in the worst way possible seem to have gotten their wish.

Labor and Kadima have one advantage over the Likud: As they are larger parties, they will get a larger proportion of public funding for campaign advertising and public air time. In Israel, that doesn't seem to play as big a role as it does in the US. Television ads are controlled and limited to the period immediately before the election. Generally they are shown one after the other on public TV and mostly make people angry at missing their favorite shows. In any case, the Likud still has its army of right-wing US Jewish millionaires who will pass plain brown envelopes to Bibi to keep him in his cigars and to crank out advertisements against "divided Jerusalem."

Elections will be held in February. The Israeli economy is about to go sour like the rest of the world economies, so the incumbent party will get no joy there. A military venture such as ousting Hamas or attacking Iran is not likely and would require the cooperation of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is even less likely. And military moves are risky.

Livni is Foreign Minister and has some control there. To turn the situation around, she would have to pull some diplomatic rabbit out of a hat. Prospects for that are poor. A year of negotiations since the Annapolis conference have only consolidated and institutionalized the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and negotiations with Syria have produced mostly promising declarations alternating with threats. The now really lame duck US administration is probably not going to lend a hand in any peace negotiations and won't have much credibility if it does. If Obama is elected, Syria and the Palestinians are probably going to want to hold out for a better deal under the new administration. Any deal for return of captured soldier Gilad Shalit would involve humiliating and unpopular concessions to the Hamas, who would be sure to crow about their victory and rub Tzipy's nose in it.

Livni has now said the obvious: The elections will be a referendum on the peace process. As there is no peace in sight and not even much process any more, the elections should be a disaster for Kadima. Given the unyielding nature of Palestinian and Syrian demands, Livni can only show progress in the peace process by making unpopular concessions in the Golan or the West Bank, which would give Netanyahu something more to attack and would only make matters worse for Kadima. Heads Likud wins, tails Kadima loses. This is unfortunate and ironic in view of the growing disgust of the majority of the Israeli public with settler violence and curses against the IDF as well as Palestinians. Somehow, much of the Israeli public seems to be so clueless that they can't make the connection between the settlers and the settlements.

And somehow, those who continually insist that Israel must make concessions to support Palestinian moderates, don't understand that the opposite is also true. If Abbas and Livni were to work out a symbolic framework agreement that included Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, recognition of at least some Israeli national rights in East Jerusalem and some Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem, and a non-threatening solution to the refugee problem, Livni could still come out a winner, and Abbas could come out a winner too. This would be an achievement that could conceivably get the support of both publics. But neither side will make the needed compromises. Both seem intent on riding the donkey of impassivity down to their own personal political oblivion and national disaster. Likewise, if Mr. Assad was really interested in peace, he would understand that a single appearance of his in the Israeli Knesset would get him the Golan on his terms. Evidently, Abbas and Assad would rather deal with Bibi's intransigence.

So much for the elections that are about to take place in Israel. Another set of elections will probably not take place -- the Palestinian presidency elections, and that will only make matters worse. The semi-active volcano of the Second Intifada lurks in the background and gives off smoke from time to time. The cease fire or lull with Hamas will expire, and they threaten to renew violence. It is a good device to advance the cause of "Palestinian unity" with Hamas in the lead. There are also dark threats of renewed violence when Mahmoud Abbas's term as Palestinian Authority President expires in January. Abbas has refused to hold elections, even though polls show Fatah would win a landslide victory. Abbas knows better than to trust the polls.

It was the Hamas, after all, who brought Bibi to power in 1996, and they won't miss an opportunity to do it again. One Hamas suicide bombing is worth about 50 television advertisements for Bibi, and a quixotic Barack Obama inauguration speech about "engaging" Iran might be worth even more.

In the very best case, after the elections Kadima will have to give Shas what they would not give them before the elections. In the worst case, Bibi Netanyahu, the Likud and its right-wing partners will come to power. Israel will have an obstinate government that will very likely face a US ally bent on wringing concessions from Israel as it beats an ignominious retreat from Iraq. 2009 will be a bad year for Israel, the Palestinians and the peace process in all likelihood. As for Shas, don't worry about them. No matter who is in power, it seems they always get their money in the end.

We may well have Bibi Netanyahu to kick around some more, or more likely, it is he who will kick around the rest of us.

Brilliant Barak, have you lost your sparkle? No-longer-Zippy Tzipi, what were you thinking?

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000722.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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