Israeli Election Reflects Resurgence of the Right
Shift Indicates Frustration With Failed Peace Talks
Saturday, February 14, 2009; Page A13
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.