In July, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his resignation due to allegations of corruption. At present, he is considered a lame duck leader with a soon-to-be out of session Knesset (the Israeli parliament). The nation is now gearing up for what all pundits expect will be a tight and hard-fought contest.
Despite global economic turmoil, the election should revolve around the usual core of diplomatic and security issues: the Palestinians, Iran, and terrorism. Thus, most campaigning and political strategy will focus solely on such topics. Indeed, party power jockeying has already begun, as two right-wing parties (National Union and National Religious Party), which share similar views on the Palestinians, have joined together to form a more powerful political coalition with a combined nine seats in the Knesset.
Three candidates currently lead the pack for the February 17th election. The first is Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party, which is the most powerful party in the Knesset with 29 out of 120 seats. She is the front-runner in early polling and, in fact, could have already seized the position if not for a McCain-like move where she refused to ally herself with two religious parties whose political demands would have impeded her attempts at peace negotiations.
The second is Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud, a major right-wing party. While Likud is currently the third-most powerful party in the state, it has the ability to attract a wide coalition of right-leaning parties. The third and least likely winner is Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, which has lost a considerable amount of power in recent years. The party has come under criticism for its center-right positions, which have alienated its key middle and upper-class constituencies.
The contest figures ultimately to become a two-horse race led by the moderate Livni and the hawkish Netanyahu. The potential implications of the election are difficult to predict. Some pundits have suggested that the election will be inconsequential. Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post has argued that even after the election, the country still “won’t have a clear reading of what, exactly, it said.” The complexity of the Israeli political landscape with its twelve represented parties and its wide array of opinions will make consensus building difficult (especially when issues are deemed “existential”). The Economist contends that the actions of the United States president will be far more influential in determining the course of affairs and negotiations in the region. Because “hawks can make peace too,” potential for diplomatic progress exists and results will ultimately hinge much more on the policy of the White House.
Yet, while the Byzantine political situation may inhibit some action, it would be incorrect to simply discount the potential effects of the Israeli election. First, while the United States still retains significant influence in the region, that influence began a steady decline a number of years ago. As Eytan Avriel of Ha’aretz notes, a regional meeting of the World Economic Forum in Turkey demonstrated that the United States has lost much of its once-strong reputation in economic affairs. In fact, instead of the U.S. driving the situation, a strong-willed prime minister may find him or herself in a position to determine influence American policy in the Middle East.
Also, the election will determine the rhetoric and positioning of the Israeli government in relation to the Palestinians. Livni has chosen to frame the election around the issue of the peace process, an area in which perhaps the sharpest contrasts between her positions and those of Likud exist. While Netanyahu supports the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and opposes mentioning Jerusalem in any negotiations, Livni opposes such expansions and would consider discussion of Jerusalem. Clearly each candidate’s offers a markedly different approach to the peace process, with Likud less likely to progress toward a two-state solution. At the present time, however, such a conclusion may not be desirable, as it would expose Jerusalem and Israel as a whole to more threats.
Ultimately, then, the fate of the Middle East may well rest on the decisions the Israeli populace makes in the coming months and years.