Israel went to the polls on February 10th and narrowly gave the Kadima party under Tzipi Livni a lead over right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Kadima won 28 seats, Likud 27. It sounds like a victory for Livni, whom I have admired for a long time, and written about in the past. But of course it was nothing of the kind.
Labor, once Israel’s primary powerhouse, gained a measly 13 seats, and the result was that Kadima is twisting in the wind, not even remotely capable of forming a government in the 120-seat Knesset. Shimon Peres, the President and titular head of state, gets to choose who will be Prime Minister and wield real power. But he doesn’t really have much choice.
Only Netanyahu can form and lead a government, because Labor’s loss has been Avigdor Lieberman’s gain. Lieberman, who has been described as a neo-Fascist by the intensely pro-Israel New Republic editor Martin Peretz, was the real winner in this election. His Yisrael Beitenu party won 15 seats, changing places with Labor for third largest party, as his extremist anti-Arab views took hold among a sufficient minority of Israeli Jews to make him the kingmaker of Israel’s politics of the moment.
So we have the supreme irony of Shimon Peres, a lifelong Labor leader, liberal, and peacenik—and arguably the only figure in Israel today who commands the kind of respect due to someone who goes back to the beginning—about to tap a right-wing Likudnik for Prime Minister, mainly because he has the support of a neo-Fascist anti-Arab bigot.
Except for an even greater irony. Bibi, as Netanyahu is known, is afraid to form a government. He could have done so ten days ago if he had wanted to, but he seems to have looked over at Lieberman—and at Shas, the ultra-religious party that would also join him in a rightist regime—and found cause to tremble.
Why? I suspect it is partly because Lieberman has demanded so much in the way of cabinet posts as to make himself a laughingstock. But not only that. It’s because Bibi has seen Lieberman in the mirror, and he doesn’t really like it.
Bibi has played the role of Menachem Begin’s heir very well over the years, even during his first stint as Prime Minister. But times have changed, and Bibi is no Begin. Begin was a Holocaust survivor who spoke Hebrew with a thick European accent and—quite understandably—carried his murdered family in his arms in every encounter public and private.
Bibi is a modern man who speaks impeccable English and who can’t feel completely comfortable with those he has to embrace in order to make a right-wing government work. He looks at Europe and sees not his family’s murderers but necessary allies and a vast market for Israel’s future. He looks at India, China, Russia, and globalization and sees a world Begin could not have fathomed.
More importantly, he sees an America—for better or worse, Israel’s great-big brother—that is losing patience with Israel’s right wing. He sees a new, popular, very smart African-American president who is almost diametrically opposed to former President Bush on some aspects of foreign policy. Is Israel one of them? We don’t know.
But we do know that things have changed. Barack Obama will not sign the blank check that George W. Bush endorsed over to Israel first thing every morning. He owes a lot to Jewish Americans, but how patient will they be with an Israeli government that is openly bigoted against Arabs, and that asks for carte blanche with American weapons to do as they will in the dangerous Middle East?
Tzipi Livni has set forth conditions under which she and Kadima would be willing to form a government with Bibi. Will he pay attention to her and her many followers, who gained more votes in the election than he did? Or will he let the religious right and the anti-Arab fringe capture his last best chance to make a permanent mark on the history of his country? We will soon see.