Israeli Election Math Favors Netanyahu

Likud's leader has lost ground to a far-right party, but he is still expected to become prime minister.

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By Larry Derfner, Mideast Watch

Dominating the news is tomorrow's Israeli elections. While former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party has lost much support lately to the far-right, blatantly anti-Arab Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, leaving Likud with a very slim margin over the centrist Kadima (Forward) party, Netanyahu is still expected to become Israel's next premier. The daily Ha'aretz newspaper explains:

Even if Kadima gets one or two more seats in the Knesset than Likud, Netanyahu, together with other right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, will be substantially larger than the center-left bloc. And even if Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman joins Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, she needs another right-wing party to form a government, because Meretz and the Arab parties won't support a government which includes Lieberman.

Livni's bloc, which today stands at about 52 or 53 seats, would lose 12 or 13 spots the moment she goes with Lieberman. And Lieberman, before he recommends that the president tap Livni to form a government, will have to think long and hard if she is capable of forming a stable coalition; otherwise he will commit suicide twice, by supporting her against the will of most of his voters and again if her attempt to form a government fails.

But can anyone govern this country?
With such atomization in the Israeli political system, the growing concern is that while Netanyahu may be able to form a government, that government is unlikely to be stable—a perennial problem in the country's politics. The Jerusalem Post English-language daily analyzes the situation:

Take a ruling party that controls less than a fourth of the Knesset, add a couple of mid-size parties that could bring down the government on a whim and top it off with a few extortionists along for the ride.

Put it all together and you have the recipe for Israel's 32nd government, which will start being formed as soon as the final results of Tuesday's election are in.

The rise of a demagogue
But the big story of the election campaign so far has been the meteoric rise of Lieberman and Yisrael Beitenu, which polls predict will finish third behind Likud and Kadima—and ahead of Labor, Israel's founding party. Yisrael Beitenu's slogans are "Only Lieberman speaks Arabic" and "No citizenship without loyalty," referring to the party's pledge to require all Israelis—including the country's Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population—to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state or lose their citizenship. Sima Kadmon, political analyst for the daily Yediot Aharonot , describes the Lieberman phenomenon:

The growth and entrenchment of Yisrael Beitenu disturbs the entire political echelon—just as it disturbs European parties that see right-wing movements on the rise. There the driving force is hatred for immigrants. Here it's for Arabs. The public knows Lieberman won't be able to solve the problem, but it wants someone whom [Arabs] will at least be afraid of.... Aggression, that's what the public wants to broadcast now to the Arabs.

Kadmon's colleague Nahum Barnea, Israel's leading columnist, compares Lieberman to Meir Kahane, the American-born rabbi who was elected to the Knesset in the early 1980s, banned later from the Knesset because of his racist views, and ultimately slain by a Muslim fanatic in New York. Writes Barnea:

The streets of Israel are dotted with the graffito: "Kahane was right." After the election, they'll be able to change the graffito to: "Kahane won."

Kahane will be watching
Another sign of Kahane's spiritual presence in this election will be his leading follower in Israel, Baruch Marzel, who represents one of the small far-right parties as a polling-booth inspector in the Israeli Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, the stronghold of the country's Islamic Movement. Trouble is feared, the Jerusalem Post reports:

Police forces in the North, meanwhile, are getting ready for the prospect of serious rioting, a scenario made more real following a decision by the Central Elections Committee to allow far-Right activist Baruch Marzel to oversee a polling station in the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm. Marzel's presence will be seen by the town's residents as a severe provocation.

Scaring the devil out of voters
As usual, religious weirdness is a factor in these Israeli elections as the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is trying to keep its voters from defecting to the secular Yisrael Beitenu by trotting out its octogenarian "spiritual leader," Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Yediot Aharonot reports:

Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said during his weekly Saturday-night sermon at his house that whoever supports Yisrael Beiteinu "supports Satan."

"These are people who do not have Torah, people who want civil marriages, shops that sell pork, and the army enlistment of yeshiva students," Rabbi Yosef said. "My heart is heavy. Heaven forbid people support them. This is completely forbidden. Whoever does so commits an intolerable sin. Whoever does so supports Satan and the evil inclination."

How will Israel 's Arabs vote? Will they?
Meanwhile, Israel's 1.3 million Arab citizens are divided on how to respond to the rightward, anti-Arab tilt of the campaign. Some say they should boycott the voting in protest. Others, especially representatives of the Knesset's Arab parties, insist that Arab citizens make doubly sure to vote to ensure their rights. Al Jazeera (which refers to Israeli Arabs as Palestinian-Israelis) reports:

Among those promoting the boycott is Abna al-Balad, a grassroots movement established in the 1960s, which calls for the return of Palestinian refugees and wants Palestinian citizens to vote in elections in a Palestinian state.

But the rise of the right wing in this election has others calling for greater participation from Palestinian-Israelis.

The National Democratic Assembly (known as Balad) and Ual-Taal, two parties representing Palestinian-Israelis, and Hadash, a party with both Palestinian and Israeli candidates, argue that Palestinian-Israelis have a duty to vote.

Yet Yasmeen Dahar, an election candidate for Balad, told Al Jazeera that participation was important in order to challenge parties such as Yisrael Beitenu to protect Arab interests.

Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange on the table
The fate of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Gazan Palestinians in June 2006 and has been missing since, is high on the agenda of the Israel-Hamas truce talks being mediated by Egyptian officials in Cairo. Shalit's release is a cause célèbre in Israel, and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pledged to bring Shalit home before he leaves office in a few weeks from now. Ha'aretz reports on what may be holding up Shalit's release:

A deal for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit hinges on a dispute between Israel and Hamas over four Palestinian prisoners whom Israel refuses to free, two pan-Arab newspapers reported Monday.

Israel has agreed, however, to release all of the other prisoners Hamas is demanding in return for Shalit, the London-based dailies Al-Quds al-Arabi and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported.

The papers named the four as Abdullah Barghouti, Ibrahim Hamad and Abbas Sayed, all Hamas men, and Ahmed Sa'adat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Each was convicted of orchestrating a string of terror attacks.

And the Palestinian news agency International Middle East Media Center, or IMEMC, quotes a senior Hamas official as saying the truce and prisoner exchange could be in the works:

A senior Hamas official stated Sunday that he expects a truce with Israel could be declared after the Israeli elections this Tuesday, and that the issue of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, would also be concluded, Maan News Agency reported.