By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 14, 2009
JERUSALEM, Feb. 13 -- Israel's election this week left doubts over who will become prime minister, but a clear majority of voters supported parties that regard military force, rather than peace talks, as the best way to safeguard the country.
The shift away from politicians who emphasize negotiations with Palestinians and the country's Arab neighbors means that Israel's right, after years in the political wilderness, is almost certain to be back in control no matter who forms the next government. It will hold 65 seats in the new Israeli parliament, or Knesset, compared with 50 in the old one. As Likud party's Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima's Tzipi Livni each race to put together a coalition, both are courting parties to their right.
The right's resurgence, analysts say, reflects the sense among Israelis that years of talks have yielded little but violence and insecurity. It also stems from a prevailing belief that deep Palestinian divisions between Fatah in the West Bank, which favors negotiations, and Hamas in Gaza, which rejects Israel's existence, leave little hope for peace.
"The outcome of the election is that the way of the left has failed. The public has realized it was leading us to destruction," said Hanan Porat, a rabbi who has helped lead efforts to build Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank for more than three decades. "The Qassam rockets that have been falling are more convincing than all the speeches about peace."
Yet the two parties that most directly benefited from those feelings in Tuesday's vote represent distinctly different strains of right-wing thought. Likud, which is considered most likely to gain the prime ministership, has focused on the danger of giving up the West Bank to Palestinian control and the need to increase Jewish settlements there.
By contrast, the party of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, which scored a third-place finish that vaults him into a king-making role, has promoted the notion of the enemy within. He has warned Jewish Israelis that the nation's Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population, are undermining the state. The key to Israel's long-term security, he has suggested, is to rid it of Arabs -- even if that means turning over Israeli land where Arabs are concentrated to a future Palestinian state, in exchange for West Bank settlements.
Lieberman's fiery anti-Arab rhetoric has invited comparisons, even among those on the more traditional right, to Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the radical Kach Party. Kach won one seat in the Knesset during the mid-1980s before it was banned for its racist views. Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu or Israel Is Our Home, on Tuesday won 15 seats, up from 11 in the last Knesset.
Both Livni, a former member of Likud who is now considered a centrist, and Netanyahu are actively seeking Lieberman's support. But Lieberman is, in many respects, isolated from the rest of the right. Unlike the religious parties and unlike Kahane, Lieberman is secular. He supports civil marriages as an alternative to religious ceremonies, a key issue among his backers. Lieberman's appeal is strongest among fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, some of whom are not considered Jewish and therefore have trouble marrying in Israel.
The spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said in the run-up to the election that anyone who supported Lieberman was "helping Satan."
Lieberman's views on trading land with the Palestinians also make him anathema to many in Likud, who have traditionally sought to maximize Israeli holdings between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River -- not give them away because their populations happen to be Arab.
"It's not a right-wing idea," said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center. "It's an idea that the right is horrified at."
Yet as Lieberman rises, Likud is reevaluating its own positions. Netanyahu has taken a hawkish stance on Hamas and Iran -- saying he will "finish the job" in Gaza, and hinting strongly that he intends to take military action to halt Iran's nuclear program.
Analysts say that, overall, Netanyahu has moderated his views since he last served as prime minister during the late 1990s, but even then he was sometimes subject to the peacemaking momentum of the times. Although harshly critical of negotiations with the Palestinians, he signed U.S.-backed accords that led to divided control of the West Bank city of Hebron and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from other parts of the West Bank.
His positions remain complex: He has left the door open to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, but he also says that Israel's existing settlements need to expand to meet the needs of a growing population.
"The honest truth is that Netanyahu has moved toward the center," Rubin said. "He's not the same person he was 12 years ago."
That makes some in the party uneasy, including a faction within Likud known as the Jewish Leadership Movement. The faction, which has played an increasingly influential role in recent years and gained ground in 2008 party primaries, believes in Greater Israel -- the idea that all the land between the river and the sea belongs to the Jewish people.
"In the old days, when a Jew was killed, a settlement was put on the map," said Gideon Ariel, a member of Likud's central committee who is associated with the faction. "That's the way it should work now."
Ariel, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, said the Palestinian Authority, which has been negotiating for peace with Israel and has received security assistance from the United States, should not be allowed to have even a police force. "If they have a single bullet, it will be used against us," he said. "They are a rabid and rabble-rousing group of terrorists."
Such views are considered outside the mainstream in Israel, and are one reason Netanyahu may be looking for a broader base for his new government.
The last time Netanyahu was prime minister, he lost power in large part because he was pushed out by members of his coalition who were to his right.
Confidants say he is nervous that the same thing could happen again.
Although Netanyahu could form a coalition strictly with the 65 Knesset members who come from Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and small right-wing parties, he has said he prefers a unity government with Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who leads the center-left Labor Party. Livni's Kadima won the most seats in Tuesday's vote, 28 to Likud's 27, but she is seen as having little chance of forming a government because parties to her left such as Labor lost ground.
Both Livni and Barak favor negotiations with the Palestinians. But the Israeli public showed little appetite for talks in Tuesday's vote, and Livni would find it hard to pursue negotiations even if she becomes prime minister because of the compromises she would need to make to get the job.
"The peace camp has a very difficult time selling a peace platform," said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "As far as most Israelis are concerned, there's no partner and there's no process."
But there is one figure who factors prominently in Israeli politics and who still thinks a negotiated settlement is worth a chance: President Obama.
Israel needs support from the United States, its largest benefactor, and Netanyahu knows that his relations with the new American president will suffer if he leads a government made up solely of those from the right, according to Bar Ilan University political science chair Gerald Steinberg.
In particular, Netanyahu will be seeking Obama's support as Israel confronts what the Likud leader sees as the country's most pressing security threat in decades: Iran.
"It would be hard to work with Obama and the U.S. if it's a right-wing government," Steinberg said. "Israel needs a rational, non-ideological approach in several areas right now, and Iran's at the top of the list."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.