Too early for despair

Once again, Israel’s elections reflected the dominant role played by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in determining the direction of Israeli politics. Now, it appears likely that the conflict will also dictate the creation of a centrist coalition that may not resolve it but at least will do it no harm.

It was pessimism over the prospects for a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process, more than any other factor, which caused voters to abandon the political left and move to the center and right. The causes for that pessimism are multiple: the failure of unilateral withdrawal–in the eyes of too many voters it produced aggression by Hizballah and Hamas; the failure of PM Ehud Olmert and FM Tzipi Livni’s (and President George W. Bush’s) clumsy attempt at a renewed peace process throughout last year; the perceived failure (even though it is too early to judge) of the attempt by Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to solve Israel’s problems with Hamas in Gaza militarily; and the abject failure of the Palestinian polity, over the past 16 years, at state-building.

And yet, Livni’s dramatic success at vote-getting in these elections is also an affirmation of the two-state solution she is so closely identified with. Livni fought heavy odds. A failed prime minister from her party refused to step aside in her favor when he could have helped her electorally. The unimpressive Kadima list backing her up simply repulsed some voters. And chauvinist accusations regarding her lack of experience and security savvy appealed to Israelis’ overwhelming security concern. Yet in this election, Livni and centrist Kadima successfully embodied the best values of the disappearing political left regarding resolution of the conflict.

By the same token, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman–a highly problematic figure, to be sure–appears to have completely preempted the left’s values on issues of religion and state, which are now the concern primarily of Israel’s Russian immigrant population. Lieberman is best known for his racist attacks on the Arab citizens of Israel– whose rejection of Israel as a Jewish state played right into his hands. Yet he cannot be completely dismissed as a supporter of a two-state solution, even though he prefers a demographic to a geographic standard in delineating the borders.

Finally, there is Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. He came in a close second at the head of a party list populated by many politicians with views far to his right on the Palestinian issue. And he heads a right wing bloc that won a clear majority in these elections but whose support for Netanyahu as prime minister would doom him to intense friction with the Obama administration, Israel’s moderate Arab neighbors and the rest of the world over settlements and territory, i.e., again, over the Palestinian issue.

The dynamic of the coming weeks is likely to take the following form: Netanyahu will seek to prove that he can form a rightwing government of at least 61 members of Knesset in order to receive a mandate from President Shimon Peres. His challenge will be to avoid making quotable promises to the right wing parties that could embarrass him later. Livni will insist on rotation of the premiership; otherwise, she and Kadima will opt for the political opposition in the reasonable certainty that a far-right coalition will prove a constant embarrassment for Netanyahu and for Israel and will be short-lived.

Livni and Netanyahu, probably with Lieberman along for the ride, will almost certainly meet somewhere in between, if not immediately then after a few months of poisonous right wing rule. The resultant coalition will engage in fairly effective conflict management with the Palestinians–certainly nothing worse than the outgoing Olmert-Livni-Barak government. When pressured by Obama, and given Netanyahu’s preoccupation with Iran, it could find a common language with Washington regarding the need for dramatic progress with Syria. This would strike a critical blow at Tehran’s designs for the Levant region, thereby ultimately strengthening moderate Palestinians in the bargain.

Syria-Israel negotiations would be ironic, considering that the question of negotiations with Damascus was barely an issue in these elections. Yet stranger things have happened in Israel when the right is in power but the left (this time in the form of Kadima) retains its influence.