Wednesday, February 11, 2009

And Now The Fun Begins

Election day ended with a thunder storm of Biblical proportions dumping rain, snow and numerous lightening bolts upon the country. Much of the weather here is of Biblical proportions. Not so the politicians or the elections.

Tzipi Livni has spent the past couple of weeks trying to re-make herself into Hillary Clinton. This result is good news and bad news. The good news is that her appeal to women and undecided young secular leftists seems to have worked. Kadima, which was polling at around 23 mandates appears to have won 28. A very nice last minute push that guarantees that Kadima, unlike its predecessor centrist parties, will be around for at least one more general election with Livni as Chair. The bad news is that, like Hillary Clinton, Livni finds herself in the position of having received the most votes but, given the rules of the game, will not become the next Prime Minister. Hillary at least got to be Secretary of State. Livni is on her way out as Foreign Minister. Some victory.

The right wing parties as a group won about 65 mandates. All Netanyahu has to do is persuade Avigdor Lieberman that a right wing "nationalist" coalition is Lieberman's true home (and buy off the religious parties with money for child support and yeshivas) and he will have a clear majority coalition. Livni has only the slimmest of hopes of forming a government. Why? Her victory came largely at the expense of Labor and Meretz who wound up with 13 and 3 mandates, respectively, a total of 6 fewer than predicted by the polls. This morning, Ehud Barak's party leaders seem to have won the argument that Labor needs to rebuild from the opposition. So Labor is not, today, looking to go into a coalition with Livni or anyone else. IMHO this changes once someone offers Barak the Defense Ministry. But even with Labor, Livni can't form a government without Lieberman and Shas, neither of whom were inclined to join her government four months ago and have even less reason to do so now.

The only ways Livni gets to be Prime Minister are long shots. First, Netanyahu suddenly becomes a patriot and decides that some sort of unity government is needed to address Iran and the recession. Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beteinu and Labor have 84 mandates among them and could form a right-center-left secular coalition. Under this scenario either Livni is sole Prime Minister or she and Bibi agree to rotate in the office. (Something Shamir and Peres did in the 1980s.) Why a unity government? Two words: recession and Iran. Fixing Israel's share of the world economic crisis will require making some nasty decisions. Better to do that in a way that forces your rivals to share the blame with you. Shamir and Peres did this with some success in the 1980s. Iran (and Syria) have to be dealt with and that means keeping the Obama Administration (the Turks and Egypt) happy or at least not angry. It would also mean that Lieberman gets some satisfying pay back against Shas' religious leader for calling him Satan.

The second scenario is even more sketchy. Livni can be Prime Minister if Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to be Prime Minister following the election in 2013, decides that he's better off running against her than Bibi. Next, Livni swallows her principles and pays Shas its pound of flesh to join her government. Dangle the Defense Ministry and some cushy, no show jobs under Barak's nose and Labor will find a way to join a coalition with Lieberman and Shas. Then she will control 69 mandates and get to be Prime Minister. Do not hold your breath or take her in the office pool.

As for the former peace process, under anyone but Livni that's going to be DOA. Even a Livni-led government isn't going to be able to make much progress but it will at least try to make its dealings with the Palestinians look good enough for the US will help out with Iran and Syria. A Bibi-led government will probably not even bother with the show. Electing a right wing, religious government is the Israeli equivalent of Palestinians electing Hamas. You may not like them but you know where they stand. The smoke and mirrors Bibi will try to sell to George Mitchell is that focusing on economic development in the West Bank (and even Gaza if Hamas accepts a long term truce) will cause the Palestinians to give up violence and compromise on their national ambitions. Gee, an Israeli politician who thinks people can be bought. What a novel concept. So the Palestinians will gladly tone the missile and bombings down while they accumulate wealth, Bibi-style. They will then use the money to finance the Third Intifada.

But the most talked-about potential coalition, other than a right-only group, would be a unity government of Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beteinu with Bibi as Prime Minister. Kadima would get the Foreign and Defense Ministries, which would go to Livni and Shaul Mofaz. The silver lining in this particular cloud is the religious parties get shut out and Lieberman gets to push conversion reform and civil marriage (two things near and dear to his Russian emigre constituency). Such a government might also be able to go after a deal with Syria (which would make the US, Turkey and Egypt happy campers but that's for another blog).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, the Eyptians have been trying to get Hamas to sign off on a long term truce by arguing that if Hamas doesn't take a deal before the Israeli government changes, they're going to get much worse offers. Hamas, which suffers from its own 3 or 4 way internal split, keeps saying "no deal" and opening the next box. The next box will have Bibi and Lieberman in it instead of Livni and Barak. Way to go geniuses.

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