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Rise of the radical pragmatist

Israel’s election disappointed leftists,gladdened the far-right

Written by Sudeep Paul | Published: February 12, 2009 12:59 am

Tuesday night,as the polls closed in Israel,Nachman Shai,former IDF spokesman and number 18 on the Kadima list for this Knesset election,told CNN that Tzipi Livni was the best choice for prime minister because she could attack Gaza and,immediately afterwards,talk peace. That needed courage and determination: courage to take risks,determination to not compromise on ends. In an article in The Jerusalem Post a day before the election,Shai,making Kadima’s case,used the logic of his own conversion from political indifference to involvement: this would be an election about security as much as demography. Long opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state,Shai warmed up to it realising that without disengagement and two states,demography would overwhelm Israel,making Jews the minority arbiters of an Arab majority’s destiny. The dream of greater Israel needed to be

abandoned to keep Israel democratic and Jewish.

Shai’s journey is one that many Israelis have taken since the Oslo Accords,and made again after the Second Intifada began. The key sentiment resonating through the campaign was “Enough!” Security,apparently,would determine the results. An exhausted Israel can’t bear its fear-psychosis any more. We’d heard that before,but there was indeed the sense of a cataclysmic departure this time. Israel has drifted rightward,proportionately: the centre-right to the far right,the centre to the right,the centre-left to the centre,ad infinitum.

Likud had comfortably led the opinion polls for a month,and then,Kadima suddenly began closing the gap with a week to go,neutralising it with a day to go and then emerging as the largest party,a seat ahead of Likud,when 99 per cent votes had been counted. Was this a sudden waking up to calls such as Shai’s or an epiphany about Livni’s capability? If fear had pushed the electorate to Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman,it was another fear — that of the Right itself — that brought most of the rest of the vote to centrist Kadima,leftist as well as Arab votes. This was negative voting to stop Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. On the other hand,Likud slipped because so many rightist votes went to Lieberman. Kadima,in the end,edged past Likud because of causes outside itself. But the rightist bloc in the new Knesset is projected to be bigger than the leftist bloc and Netanyahu may still be PM. That’s why both Livni and Netanyahu have claimed victory. Livni is untested as PM,Netanyahu and Barak have been there before,and disappointed.

Likud’s proposed jettisoning of the two-state solution and

Netanyahu’s unwillingness to let go of the Golan Heights put off the centrist voter; the rightist voter remained unconvinced,knowing that,historically,centre-right governments under Likud have made more concessions to Palestinians than centre-left ones under Labor or Kadima. As for Labor,at a historic low of fourth position,it must stay with Kadima,in government or opposition,in its own interest.

That brings us to the fulcrum of this election,a man now kingmaker,whose move will determine whether President Shimon Peres calls Netanyahu or Livni: Avigdor Lieberman. This polarising and controversial politician of Russian descent personifies the nation’s change in mood and is the only figurehead whose personality and rhetoric alone got votes. Leftists,centrists and international observers pronounced him racist and fascist. Israeli Arabs and Palestinians hate him. He had asked for the execution of Arab Knesset members who kept ties with Hamas. He wants citizenship to be contingent on “loyalty” — Israeli Arabs who fail the test,should thereby be deprived of theirs. He wants large Jewish settlements in the West Bank annexed to Israel (and correspondingly Arab-majority towns in East Jerusalem handed to the Palestinian Authority). Part of his radical agenda is also civil marriage,something absent from Israel. His territorial swap may be a quick-fix solution and his platform downright discriminatory,but Hanoch Daum asked in the Yedioth Ahronoth,echoing a Beiteinu member: why is the same man called “pragmatic” when he’s part of a centrist government (as he was from October 2006 to January 2008) and a “fanatic” when he wishes to join a rightist one?

There is no final analysis on personality. In any case,neither

Netanyahu nor Livni has much choice but to negotiate with this perplexing character. Unless of course a “national unity” government keeps Lieberman out or blunts his relevance. But one doesn’t yet see Kadima going with Likud,or a tripartite coalition of Livni-Netanyahu-Barak lasting. But the same equation,minus Barak (warned by Labor to stay away from Lieberman),plus Lieberman,is still a technical

possibility. What remains unaltered is the fact that war and peace in West Asia have just been put on a new path. It’s just the leftists who voted for Kadima that woke up disappointed to see Livni sounding out Lieberman.

sudeep.paul@expressindia.com

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