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Israel: Winners and Losers

Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, of Likud, is on the verge of forging a government after five weeks or so of haggling. The announcement of a right-wing government will come soon, unless Bibi manages to fulfill his wish of a unity government by making an eleventh hour deal with Kadima and Tzipi Livni (the party that technically won the popular vote, but had no chance of forming a coalition due to bloc issues.)

It’s all fairly confusing, so let’s parse out the winners and losers.

Avigdor Lieberman – Winner:“Yvet”, as he’s known in Israel, has one major thing going against him: he’s under investigation for corruption, and an indictment might force him to step down from the government just as his moon is rising.

Otherwise, everything is going the Moldavian immigrant’s way. Riding on his fascist-like slogans about the need for state loyalty, his party (Yisrael Beiteinu) took 15 seats in this Knesset, giving Yvet a firm grip around Bibi’s balls in the coalition negotiations. While both knew they needed each other, and Yisrael Beiteinu has conceded on some demands (concessions included allowing controversial Justice Minister Daniel Friedman to be replaced, relinquishing demands to reform the government, the much-ballyhooed loyalty oath idea, and offering civil marriages to their Russian base), the party still came out of this looking stronger than anybody. Likud members are grumbling about how many ministers YB is receiving, and the whole world cringes at the thought of Lieberman becoming Foreign Minister.

If Lieberman can stay above the wave of crime allegations, this new position of power offers him more than a fleeting opportunity. With the right moves, Yvet could consolidate and confirm the prophecies of many pundits who see him as a future Prime Minister.

Which leads to…

Political Civility – Loser: Lieberman made news last October for saying that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell”. Fortunately, it seems Egypt is going to judge Israel by what their actions, not their words, but whether that discretion will be shared by other countries is questionable. That any discretion will be sorely tested several times, however, is not.

Bibi – Unclear: Likud will be the most powerful group in the next coalition, and Bibi will be at least an equal partner as Prime Minister. Considering Likud’s struggles after Kadima split off in 2005, this should signal an unequivocal success for Bibi and the center-right.

But this isn’t Bibi’s first time in the PM chair, and he learned a few lessons. In his narrow, non-unity government of a decade ago, Bibi had little margin for error and didn’t last through the whole term.

What does the 2009 election leave him with? A narrow right-wing majority, with slim chances of bringing Kadima or Labor in to create a unity government. And within that, he’s relying on Lieberman and the volatile, internationally unpopular religious parties. As we say in Hebrew, ze lo tov (this is no good) for Bibi.

As far as the election goes, Bibi is a winner, but the broader outlook for success is not so clear.

Ehud Olmert – Loser: The outgoing PM isn’t really affected by the coalition negotiations, but his efforts deserve mention regardless.

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After a term marked by bold words towards peace and little progress towards anything but inconclusive wars, a term cut short by corruption allegations, Olmert is trying to save face by saying he tried to forge peace, and shooting for a deal that will win the release of Gilad Shalit. His progress: an utter refutation from the other side and daily headlines on the new deadlines and extensions and deadlocks in the Shalit case, with no hint that a deal will ever be reached. In other words, Olmert is proving himself a crook, a liar, a blowhard, and a guy with bold ideas and no way of achieving them. So, given Israel’s political mores, expect his return to the PM chair in 2 elections or so.

Hamas – Winners: Hamas and Fatah are working on a unity government, which if achieved, will ameliorate Hamas’s position internationally. If Israel is left with a right-wing government that is skeptical towards peace, Hamas doesn’t look as bad in comparison.

It’s possible that Hamas will slowly moderate their position to fit this new image. One can hope. But whether they do it or not, they’re looking more and more attractive as a partner. Or at least, more and more inevitable.

Fatah – Losers: It looks like Fatah is going to get caught between a rock (Hamas) and a hard place (Israel), with little room to plow ahead. Again, if Hamas moderates itself, or if greater forces (ahem, West, ahem, Arab world) take over the peace process, Fatah might get some of what they want. But their power appears to be tapped.

Tzipi Livni – Loser Flakes dvd : Tzipi remains the great left hope in Israel, even after she missed out on coalition opportunities in October, took part in the troika that went to War against Gaza, and struggled to find her voice as a leader. That doesn’t mean she’s in a good position now, either as a head of the opposition or in some partnership with Bibi. Either she is obstructing a unity government at one of the most dangerous times in Israeli history – with the threat of Iran going nuclear hanging over – or she is compromising her own values to gain power in a government that is still unlikely to heed her goals of achieving peace.

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Peace Process – Unclear: And yet, among all those unfavorable conditions that the new coalition leaves us, the hopes for peace are not completely unrealistic. The Arab world seems to be consolidating, with hopes that the balanced equation will lean towards Egypt more than Syria. The Obama administration is presently talking about enforcing peace and creating grand alliances (reset with Russia, for example, and now reaching out to Iran) that will encourage those peace talks. While Iran’s nuclear plans pose an unappealing problem for the world, they also offer a common task, a means of galvanization.

With those global dynamics, it may be that an unstable right-wing government in Israel will not be given much margin for belligerence. It may be that the world gets its act together enough to tell Israel and the Palestinian parties that they need to get their act together, and that the act works. And arm-twisting the right wing might be better than condoning the center-left’s waffling.

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Now, with the global economic crisis, trends towards extremism in the Middle East rather than pragmatism, and the huge gaps that all sides will have to overcome to make peace, that scenario may be unlikely. But amidst all the apathy and disillusionment over Israel’s political scene right now, there are shards of hope. One has to pick them up carefully to avoid cuts, but there’s no use leaving them on the floor. Nobody wins, that way.