A THREE-HORSE race for much of the campaign,the Israeli election due on February 10th has a new hopeful. It is now a four-horse affair,with a long trail of also-rans. According to the polls,Yisrael Beitenu,previously a minor right-wing party led by Avigdor Lieberman,has been doing surprisingly well. So much so,in fact,that Mr Lieberman is up there with the more familiar parties and their leaders: the Likud under Binyamin Netanyahu,Kadima under Tzipi Livni and Labour under Ehud Barak. The front-runner remains Mr Netanyahu,but he seems likely to win with fewer than 30 seats,just one-quarter of the 120-seat Knesset. The prospect,therefore,after some tortuous post-election horse-trading,is for a fragile coalition,with its many components pulling in different directions.
Mr Lieberman,the dark horse,is branded by the left as racist,even fascist. He wants Israeli Arabs,nearly 20% of the population,to pledge allegiance to the state and be required to do military or national service. “No loyalty-no citizenship” is one of Yisrael Beitenu’s election slogans,along with “Only Lieberman understands Arabic”. He also proposes a repartition of Palestine so that areas of Israel with large Arab populations can be transferred to the Palestinian Authority in return for areas of the West Bank settled by Jews. The Arab communities in question are unanimously and vehemently opposed to the plan.
Mr Lieberman is drawing voters away from the Likud,which means a narrowing of the gap between the Likud and Kadima,the centrist party founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon and now led by Ms Livni. She is appealing to supporters of Labour and the myriad little parties of the left to come over to Kadima and help her pip Mr Netanyahu at the post. Pundits doubt she will succeed. And even if she does,they point out,the rightist block-the Likud and all the nationalist and religious parties round it-seems unbeatably bigger than the left.
Victory,then,to Mr Netanyahu and his allies? Not so fast. Mr Lieberman,who began his public career as Mr Netanyahu’s aide,has not said he will back him as prime minister. Yisrael Beitenu’s supporters demand the legalisation of civil marriage and other measures to loosen the statutory grip of the rabbis on the laws governing Israelis’ personal lives. Mr Netanyahu’s Orthodox allies,and the many traditionalists inside his own Likud,would balk at some of that agenda. Ms Livni,however,would embrace it.
More important,the Likud leader,still chastened by an unhappy first spell as prime minister in the 1990s at the head of a right-religious coalition,is determined this time to present a more moderate profile to the world,and especially to the Obama administration. Ideally,he wants Labour in his coalition,with Mr Barak staying on as defence minister. The voters might applaud. A “unity government” is the perennial favourite in Israeli opinion polls,and Mr Barak,in high regard at home after the pummelling of Gaza,is now the most desirable defence minister in such a putative dream team.
Likud strategists believe Kadima would not survive opposition. They hope it would split,with Likud renegades coming home to Mr Netanyahu and former Labour supporters making their way back to Mr Barak. This would be good for politics in general,they piously add,restoring the Likud and Labour to their pristine places as the two big parties of the right and the left. Coalitions would become more manageable,governments more durable and the country more governable.
Meanwhile,though,a police investigation against Mr Lieberman for bribery and money-laundering will complicate the coalition haggling after this election. Mr Lieberman cannot be minister of internal security while under investigation,says the attorney-general,nor minister of justice. Could he be minister of finance? If not,what job could Mr Netanyahu offer him?
In Gaza,meanwhile,a desultory exchange of militants’ rockets and Israeli bombs goes on,nearly three weeks after Israel and Hamas made their separate ceasefire announcements. Most of the rockets have been of the short-range variety,though on February 3rd a Katyusha missile struck Ashkelon,causing damage but no casualties. Most of Israel’s bombing has been aimed at the smugglers’ tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah.
Mr Barak says he is reining in Israel’s response to the rockets pending the outcome of talks in Cairo between Hamas and Egyptian officials on a long-term ceasefire. Israel wants the Palestinian Authority,and not Hamas,to supervise access to the Gaza Strip,and looks to Egypt,with the help of America and European countries,to stop the subterranean smuggling.
The unconcluded Gaza war and the election are intertwined in voters’ minds and candidates’ speeches. Hamas,Mr Barak insists,is hard hit and broken. But the rockets are facts and you can’t ignore facts. If it needs another blow,make no mistake-we’ll deliver one. Ms Livni,anxious to sound no less macho,urges tougher retaliation. Mr Netanyahu says the war ended too soon. It remains to be seen which party will benefit most from the continuing drizzle of rockets and reprisals.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009