Peace is the big loser in the Israeli election
The aftermath of Israel’s general election leaves many people worthy of sympathy: Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, probably comes top of the list. Despite winning the most votes and seats, she may well see the premiership snatched away from her.
But President Barack Obama and his new envoy to Israel and the Palestinians, George Mitchell, also deserve a moment’s thought. Their quest for peace in the Middle East has suffered another body blow.
Make no mistake: the results of this disastrous election could scarcely be worse for the prospects of a settlement.
Israelis take huge and justified pride in their country’s democratic spirit, yet most are convinced that their political system is now "crushed", to borrow the expression of Ehud Barak, the Labour leader. Israel’s pure form of proportional representation ensures that the election does not create a government. Instead, the new coalition will only emerge from weeks of bargaining.
Today, Israelis have no idea whether Miss Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Right-wing Likud party, will be their next prime minister. Nor can they tell which parties will comprise the new government. They do know that Kadima came first in the election; but Mr Netanyahu and the Right-wing parties have an overall majority in the Knesset. Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman , the leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, came a close third and holds the balance of power.
Despite having won less than 13 per cent of the vote, Mr Lieberman is now Israel’s most powerful man, able to choose the next prime minister and make or break a coalition. The two most likely possibilities are both equally disastrous. The first is that Mr Lieberman installs his ideological ally, Mr Netanyahu, as prime minister. Assuming that Miss Livni keeps her promise to steer clear of any such government, the new coalition would consist entirely of Right-wing parties, with Likud being the most moderate.
If so, this would create the most hardline Israeli government since Yitzhak Shamir’s administration almost 20 years ago. Such a government would oppose any withdrawal from the Golan Heights, scuppering the chances of a settlement with Syria. Nor would it share Jerusalem or dismantle any West Bank settlements, rendering a peace agreement with the Palestinians almost inconceivable.
As Israel’s most Americanised politician, Mr Netanyahu knows the folly of alienating Washington. If, however, he is the most moderate member of an nationalist coalition, he may still be a deeply uncomfortable partner for Mr Obama.
The second possibility is that Mr Lieberman chooses Miss Livni for the premiership. On domestic policy, Miss Livni and Mr Lieberman both want to see electoral reform and, as secular leaders, both want to remove the requirement for Israelis to marry under Jewish law.
On the peace process, however, they are poles apart. Miss Livni is no dove, but she accepts the principle of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of some Jewish settlements this would entail. Mr Lieberman does not.
A Livni-Lieberman coalition would be paralysed on the supreme question of peace with the Palestinians. Once again, this would be deeply troublesome for Mr Obama.
The only other alternative would be a grand coalition including Mr Netanyahu and Miss Livni. Yet this would require one leader to serve as a subordinate to the other – an option they have both ruled out.
In sum, Israel may soon have its most hardline government for 20 years – or an administration paralysed by rivalry. Either outcome would place an immense burden on Mr Obama.
© The Telegraph Group London