In Israeli Vote Results, A Setback for Obama

Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party each try to build a coalition government after general elections, in which neither obtained the 61-seat bloc necessary to gain control of the parliament and become prime minister.
By Glenn Kessler and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

President Obama's ambition to move quickly on Israeli-Palestinian peace suffered a significant setback yesterday with the rightward shift apparent in nearly complete Israeli election results, analysts said.

While the centrist Kadima party appeared to eke out a victory, the right-wing Likud party more than doubled its seats and an ultra-nationalist party made big gains, increasing the prospect that a government uninterested in peace talks will emerge from the post-election efforts to form a governing coalition. Even if Tzipi Livni, the head of Kadima who has vowed to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, manages to cobble together a coalition after weeks of negotiations, many experts predict she will be hamstrung by her coalition partners.

"You are going to have a very wobbly, dysfunctional, survival-minded coalition in Israel," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator.

Administration officials said yesterday they would not comment pending official returns, but many key players have long and difficult memories of dealing with Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, when he was prime minister during the Clinton administration. It is no secret that U.S. officials would prefer to deal with Livni, who as foreign minister spearheaded unsuccessful talks with the Palestinians in the waning days of the Bush administration.

"The hope is that there is a government that is really committed to peace with the Palestinians," said one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing another country's politics. Even if Netanyahu prevails, the official added somewhat hopefully, "he's grown over the years. Getting back to the talks with the Palestinians is really the only solution."

In many ways, the deep split in the Israeli electorate mirrors the split within the Palestinian government, between the Fatah party that controls the West Bank and the Hamas organization that controls the Gaza Strip. Fatah favors a negotiated settlement with Israel; Hamas rejects Israel's existence. Israeli and Palestinian societies are so divided, with such politically weak leaders, that few believe either the Israelis or the Palestinians can muster the will to reach a deal.

Obama signaled early in his term that he wanted to move quickly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, appointing a special envoy on his second day in office, former senator George J. Mitchell, who has already made a week-long tour of the region.

But Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, offered this succinct appraisal of the election result: "This is like hanging a 'closed for the season' sign on any peacemaking for the next year or so."

Miller said even a broad unity government -- one possible outcome -- would be unable to agree on peace moves but could reach quick consensus on military strikes against Hamas or Hezbollah, such as the recent invasion of Gaza. "You may get a government good at war-making, not peacemaking," he said. "It's really going to create a major headache for the administration."

While Livni appears to have won slightly more seats than Netanyahu, the Israeli parliament shifted right overall with yesterday's vote. Netanyahu was critical of the U.S.-backed Annapolis talks last year, and on the campaign trail he expressed deep skepticism that any agreement could be reached.

He has vowed not to divide Jerusalem, in which Palestinians want to establish their capital, and not to return the Golan Heights to Syria. He has also warned of the danger Israel would face if it gave up the West Bank, saying that Palestinians could use the territory to fire rockets at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Still, Netanyahu has deep connections to the United States, and few in Israel expect him to do anything that would jeopardize American support. With U.S. mediation, Netanyahu agreed during his tenure as prime minister to a peace deal under which Palestinians received partial control over the West Bank city of Hebron. Analysts say he could be susceptible to U.S. pressure.

"He will make great efforts to cultivate the president. Our most important relationship is with the U.S., and he understands that," said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center and politics professor at Bar-Ilan University. "Bibi lived for many years in the U.S. He knows how to speak to Americans. He'll do his best to please the Americans."

Livni led Israel's negotiating team during last year's Annapolis talks and has been openly supportive of continuing negotiations. On the stump, she balanced harsh condemnations of Hamas with a sober message that Israel needs to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. Without two states, she has argued, Israel will face a choice between its Jewish and democratic natures as Palestinians achieve a clear majority of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Witte reported from Jerusalem.

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