Why Israel May Take a Sharp Right Turn

Centrist Tzipi Livni faces tough challenge from right-wing Binyamin Netanyahu.

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JERUSALEM—Until late last month, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was the rising star of Israeli politics, a poised, admired, liberal pragmatist promising "a different kind of politics"—in a word, change.

But she underperformed badly in the Kadima (Forward) party primary, winning by a mere 1 percent. Now, having come up empty in her attempt to form a coalition government and take over as prime minister, she goes into the national election—to be held sometime early next year—struggling to throw off the various labels lately being attached to her, such as "inexperienced," "naive," and "loser."

Polls show Kadima running slightly ahead of the right-wing Likud, led by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. However, they also show Likud's bloc of right-wing and religious parties running well ahead of Kadima's center-left alliance.

At this point, Livni and Netanyahu seem to have a roughly equal chance of becoming premier, and the next Israeli government could well be a "national unity" coalition including both major parties, with the prime ministership going to the stronger party's leader.

Given the hawkishness of Likud and its religious allies, a national unity government does not portend progress in the long-paralyzed Israeli-Arab peace process.

The second-most-likely alternative, a narrow, right-religious government, might even threaten the current lull in fighting between Israel and its enemies.

Until late last month, there seemed a small chance that Livni, on the strength of her personal appeal, might galvanize the Israeli body politic and lead a government ready to trade land for peace with the Palestinians and Syrians, which would bring the Israeli-Arab conflict to all but an end.

This week, that small chance disappeared. Now the best Livni and the Israeli peace camp can probably hope for is that Kadima will win enough votes to neutralize Netanyahu's hard-line policies.

Until the winner of that election forms a new government—which probably won't happen before March—Ehud Olmert, who tendered his resignation because of alleged corruption, will stay on as caretaker prime minister, powerless as ever to make any substantive move toward peace.

This latest false start in Israeli politics only deepens the sense of stagnation that has taken hold in the country. For decades, Israeli leaders have been at the mercy of small, Orthodox Jewish parties with exorbitant budget demands and rigid attitudes toward peacemaking—and it was this hardened tradition that stymied Livni.

The Shas party refused to budge on its demand for a massive welfare increase for poor, mainly ultra-Orthodox families or for an end to talks aimed at bringing Palestinian rule to the Arab-populated side of Jerusalem. "I am not willing to pay [Shas's] price...just to be prime minister of a paralyzed government," Livni said after abandoning her monthlong coalition talks.

Moreover, the election will prominently feature two retreads—Netanyahu was elected prime minister back in 1996 before being trounced three years later by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who himself lost in a landslide two years afterward to the now comatose Ariel Sharon. Israelis grumble about the need for change, but the country's latest change agent just fell victim to business as usual in Jerusalem.

At times like these, reform-minded Israelis inevitably turn their hopes to Washington. If there's a genuinely pivotal election in store for this country, it may be taking place elsewhere, on November 4.

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