Dispatch September 2008

The New Face of Israel?

Israel expert Daniel Levy assesses the odds that Tzipi Livni could become Israel's next prime minister, and considers what it might mean for the Middle East if she does.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert handed in his resignation. Israel’s Foreign Minister and the newly elected leader of the Kadima party, Tzipi Livni, has now been formally given the mandate by Israeli President Shimon Peres to build a governing coalition and thereby become prime minister. Olmert has faced ongoing corruption investigations, but the cloudy circumstances did not prevent him from leaving on a playful note. In convening the cabinet to inform them of his resignation, Olmert explained that there were a number of items on the agenda, and proceeded to give a rosy update on a series of Israeli weekend sporting successes—in the Para-Olympics, Davis Cup tennis, and the European basketball championship—before getting to the final item on the agenda, his own political demise.

Israel will now enter an intense round of political maneuvering. Livni has a maximum of forty-two days to convince a majority of the Knesset to support the coalition government she hopes to lead. In other words, Livni’s deadline falls tantalizingly on November 3—the eve of you know what. If she succeeds, her government could serve until the next scheduled election, which isn’t slated until November 2010. If Livni cannot form a governing majority, then elections will be called much sooner, most likely in February or March of 2009. And there is no guarantee that she’ll succeed.

Livni has already begun meeting with party leaders from the various blocs in Israel’s fractured Knesset in order to hit the magic number—61—she needs in order to pass a parliamentary vote of confidence. So it’s time to schmooze with the rabbis, the Pensioners, and most of all with mercurial Ehud Barak, the Labor leader. But Livni’s options are somewhat limited. The most predictable way forward would be for her to try to maintain the existing coalition of Kadima (29 seats), Labor (19), the Sephardi-ultra Orthodox Shas Party (12), and the Pensioners (seven, but now internally divided), and perhaps add the left-wing Meretz Party (five seats), which is already in conversation with Livni. As for the Likud and the rest of the right-wing and religious bloc, they favor early elections and a more profound change in government, Livni will not win them over. In effect, then, Livni’s task boils down to striking a deal with the Labor and Shas parties. The Shas playbook is by now familiar to most Israelis—they are all about the sectarian interests of their core constituency (seeking budgets for religious schools and institutions, special child allowances for large families, and the like). One rarely emerges unblemished from coalition deals with Shas. Moreover the Shas party leans to the right and is under electoral pressure from Likud, and diverges from her more moderate views on the peace process or negotiations about Jerusalem’s future.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party, and in particular its leader Ehud Barak, has become a somewhat unpredictable player. In recent days Barak has justifiably received some very bad press in Israel for postponing a meeting with Livni until after he could hobnobb with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and for, in consultations with his party, recommending to the president that he, and not Livni, be asked to form a government—despite the fact that this is a legal impossibility, since Barak is not a member of parliament. Barak—a former IDF chief of staff, a former prime minister and now the defense minister—is not a happy camper. Under Barak, Labor lags a distant third in the polls. He is bereft of an agenda, and having pushed hard for Olmert’s ouster, his initial refusal to cooperate with Livni comes across as transparently cheap politicking.

Worse yet, Barak’s approach to Livni seems to have a distinctly macho, sexist tone. As Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea commented (referring to Barak) in the Yediot, “The boys aren’t willing to accept a girl into their game.” It’s hard to find a substantive reason why Labor would not serve in a Livni-led coalition: Barak has no discernibly distinct policies on socioeconomic issues, security issues, or peace-process issues, and many senior Labor Party officials are cringing at their leader’s behavior.

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Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and The Century Foundation. He served in the Israeli prime minister's office under Ehud Barak and was an official negotiator at the Oslo II and Taba peace talks. He blogs at www.prospectsforpeace.com

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