Friday, 13 February 2009

13 February 2009

JERUSALEM/LONDON: Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I do think that after an election you should be able to tell who won.

So it was just a tad frustrating this week in Israel when both the foreign minister Tzipi Livni and the former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed that they had won the general election – and the figures seemed to bear them out.

So let me try to be helpful: all you need to know is that the right-wing won. In the last election three years ago, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party had 12 parliamentary seats (there are 120 seats in total); now it has 27. Ms Livni’s centrist Kadima party had 29; now it has 28. The hardline nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu had 11 seats; now it has 15.

And the Labour party, which dominated every Israeli government for the first 30 years of the country’s existence, is now languishing in fourth place with just 13 seats.

So who’ll be the next Israeli prime minister? Sorry, don’t know (but if I had to bet on it, I’d put my money on Bibi Netanyahu). What’s more, as far as making progress on negotiating with the Palestinians is concerned, it probably doesn’t much matter.

Here’s why. Whoever is prime minister, the next government will be either right of centre or a broad-based centrist coalition consisting of Likud, Kadima and Labour (which is the option being much discussed in this morning’s Israeli papers.)

Whichever it is, it’ll be in no mood to start making concessions to the Palestinians – for the simple reason that Israeli voters are in no mood either. Ever since the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000, many Israelis have given up on the idea of negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians.

They just don’t believe it can be done. Look what happened when we withdrew from Southern Lebanon, they say. We got Hizbollah and Katyusha rockets. Look what happened when we withdrew from Gaza. We got Hamas and Qassam rockets. So now you want us to withdraw from the West Bank? No, thanks.

(Critics argue that in both Lebanon and Gaza, the Israeli withdrawals were carried out unilaterally, which could be why they ended in tears.)

A word about Yisrael Beiteinu and its controversial leader Avigdor Lieberman. Its main election promise was to make all Israeli citizens, whether Jewish or non-Jewish (about one-fifth of Israelis are Christian or Muslim Arab Palestinians), swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. If they refused, they would be denied the right to vote, stripped of their citizenship, but not expelled from the country.

In addition, the party argued that Israel should be prepared to give up large chunks of land where Arab Palestinian Israelis live, in return for large chunks of the West Bank where Israeli settlers live. In a nut-shell: don’t move the people, just move the borders.

And there’s more: Yisrael Beiteinu wants to legalise civil marriages (at present, marriages between Jews are recognised only if they are carried out by a rabbi), and liberalise the laws on selling non-kosher food. (A lot of Israel’s Russian immigrants, from whom the party derives most of its support, don’t observe traditional Jewish dietary laws.)

Not all of that fits into the conventional notion of what is right-wing in Israel. Sometimes labels don’t help much. I’m told that Mr Lieberman and Ms Livni are closer than you might think, especially on the marriage and kosher issues – so don’t discount the possibility that if Kadima do get the chance to try to put together a coalition, they’ll start by talking to Mr Lieberman.

Confused? So are Israelis. Confused, disillusioned, depressed and pessimistic. When Barack Obama was campaigning for the US presidency, he said voters should choose hope rather than fear. Many of the Israelis I’ve been talking to over the past few days seem to have done exactly the opposite.

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