Israel's Baffling Election Explained
Fania Oz-Salzberger, 02.11.09, 1:10 PM ET
If you are puzzled by the outcome of Israel's general election, take comfort--you are in good company. Nearly everyone is, including most Israelis and some of the key political players.
Here is a brief guide for the perplexed. Be warned: It's an opinionated take on a murky situation.
Do we know who Israel's next prime minister will be?
Most probably Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.
Did his Likud party, then, win most of the votes?
Of course not, silly. No one in Israel ever does. Likud won 22% of all countable votes.
Isn't that a bit meager?
Yes. That's the Israeli system. This time around, the two biggest parties won 45% of the votes between them. All other votes are split among an assortment of medium fish (including Avigdor Lieberman's hardline Yisrael Beitenu and the hapless Labor party), small fry and microscopic parties. Altogether, 31 parties won votes, and 10 will sit in the next Knesset.
Isn't that a bit much?
That's been the Israeli way so far: The more, the merrier.
What about Tzipi Livni's Kadima?
Oh, she won the elections. That is, Kadima got 23% of the votes. It may shift to a draw after the soldiers' ballots have been counted, but Livni already gave a fine victory speech on election night.
Yes. So, by the way, did Netanyahu, about 10 minutes earlier.
I think you lost me. If Livni is heading the winning party, why will Netanyahu be the next prime minister?
Simple. Although Tzipi is heading the biggest party, Bibi is heading the biggest bloc, the right-of-center cluster that clearly won more than half of Knesset seats.
Will Netanyahu team up with Lieberman, who won 15 seats (and perhaps 16, if the army ballot boxes puff up his count)?
Yes. Lieberman, an extremist, is likely to be a senior coalition member and this election's king maker.
Why are you calling Lieberman an extremist? That's unkind. Isn't he a secular, modern type willing to offer Palestinians a two-state solution?
Yes, sometimes. At other times he demands all Israeli Arab citizens go through a "loyalty test," and accuses them wholesale of being a fifth column.
Will Livni join a coalition with Lieberman?
If she leads, perhaps. Under Netanyahu's lead, probably not.
What of Ehud Barak's Labor party?
Ah, the humiliation! Just 13 seats, lagging fourth in line. Of course, it will re-emerge in the future. In the Israeli aviary, everyone is a Phoenix, be they hawk or dove. But right now, Labor is likely to go to the political desert.
Unless Kadima, Likud and Labor decide to team up, keep out smaller parties with radical agendas or big budgetary appetites and create a sensible, center-based regime.
Would this be good?
Can it be achieved?
Perhaps. President Shimon Peres may help out. His job is to call on the candidate most likely to form a coalition government and let him or her have a shot. Torn between Ms. "biggest party" Livni and Mr. "biggest bloc" Netanyahu, the street-smart Peres may urge them to share or to rotate.
Is Livni the Israeli Al Gore? Her razor-thin victory will be snatched from her eager hands!
You must be kidding. Livni came a much longer way than Gore, won against the odds, carried Ehud Olmert rather than Bill Clinton as a liability on her back and created a loyal constituency. She is not leaving politics any day soon. Plus, she has balls.
Is there still a Middle Israel?
Yes, there is: Kadima, Labor, and some of Likud, along with a couple of sane smaller parties. Trouble is, in the wake of the Gaza war, both the left and right margins have become larger, their predictions darker, their gaze gloomier.
Who stands for hope?
Kadima, the center-left, and some wise Palestinians who say even Likud will have to sign a peace agreement one fine day. Remember Menachem Begin.
Should Israel change its voting system and raise the threshold for entry into the Knesset?
Will Israelis, who can't agree on politics even with their spouses, manage to establish a two-party system?
No. Let's settle for five.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is senior lecturer at the faculty of law, University of Haifa, and Leon Liberman chair in modern Israel studies at Monash University. She has authored books and essays on intellectual history and most recently co-edited Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought.