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Israel Faces Political Deadlock Following Elections

February 11, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu both claimed victory in Israel's parliamentary elections, with close vote totals throwing the prospects for building a ruling coalition into limbo. Analysts discuss the results and what they mean for the region's political future.
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MARGARET WARNER: Just as the Obama administration embarks on trying to jump-start a Middle East peace process with a new special envoy, Israel finds itself in political deadlock.

Yesterday’s election, four weeks after Israel’s military campaign in Gaza ended, left two candidates claiming victory: Tzipi Livni of the ruling centrist Kadima Party, who won 23 percent of the vote for 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset; and Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud Party, with 21 percent of the vote for 27 seats.

Further complicating the picture, a strong showing by the Israel is Our Home party of Avigdor Lieberman, who is demanding loyalty oaths by Israeli Arabs. He won 12 percent of the vote for 15 seats.

And the flagging performance of Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labour Party, which won just 10 percent of the vote for 13 seats.

The remaining one-third of the vote splintered among 10 other parties.

Weeks of bargaining are expected to put together a coalition government. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said, “We hope a new government will continue to pursue a path to peace.”

For more, David Makovsky, a former reporter and editor for Israeli newspapers, is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Aaron David Miller, a long-time State Department official involved in Mideast diplomacy, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He’s also the author of the recently released “The Much Too Promised Land.”

Welcome to you both.

Aaron Miller, explain, what were the Israeli voters saying yesterday with this incredibly divided result?

AARON MILLER, former State Department official: Well, they may not have known it, but I think this election represents the end of a very historic transition, a transition from a generation of founders who had the moral authority, the political legitimacy, and the power not only to govern, but to make decisions, to a younger generation of Israeli prime ministers who essentially are politicians, prisoners of their politics, not masters of their constituencies.

And this transition, sadly, is coming at a time when the state of Israel faces enormous challenges, and yet it has a serious leadership deficit.

MARGARET WARNER: You see that, a leadership deficit?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Project on the Middle East Peace Process: I would disagree a bit, because, if you think of Tzipi Livni, who led the centrist Kadima Party, she actually represents a second generation of people who used to be more to the right in the Likud, and their kids — and she’s one of that second generation, whose parents were in politics — said, “Hey, it doesn’t work. You’ve got to find a compromise with the Palestinians.”

So if you look at her, you look at Ehud Olmert, I can give you four or five other names of that generation. She’s really a coming-to-terms with the need for a pragmatic center.

Right-wing parties gain support

MARGARET WARNER: But she only eked out 1 percent more than Benjamin Netanyahu and not enough to put together a government.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: That's correct. Clearly, the Israelis feel embattled. The right wing did gain. And the embattlement, Israeli, you know, when you have Iran saying they're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, rockets of Hamas, and you mentioned the Gaza war that we just saw, Hezbollah war of 2006 -- this is the first election since then -- so these are cases where the right says, "Is there really a partner out there?"

And you combine all that together and that, I think, attributed to where the right in total numbers gained, but you had a centrist woman like Livni who put forward the idea of hope and negotiations with the Palestinians who was the number-one party.

MARGARET WARNER: What's your theory about why the right -- if you look at the elections they had just three years ago -- in the aggregate, the right-wing parties are the ones that gained? And why is that?

AARON MILLER: I think we're in a security environment, not in a peace process environment. The last eight years have taken a tremendous toll on the issue of hope and the possibility of negotiated agreements between Israel and their Arab neighbors.

And everybody knows it, and everybody sees it. And Israelis see it most clearly. It's not that they've abandoned hope. I'm just not sure they believe credibly in the possibility that there can be a conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians, there can be an Israeli-Syrian conflict-ending agreement. I just don't think on an emotional and an intellectual level it rings true.

MARGARET WARNER: So how does this get resolved, briefly, if you can explain the process?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, well, what happens is Israel has a prime minister who's the decider, so to speak, but it has a ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, and the law gives him a certain discretion. He'll start on February 20th. He'll convene all the different factions of the Knesset, the parliament, and he'll say, "Who do you think should be the person?"

And then, at the end of that process, he'll make a decision. That person will have three weeks. They could have an extension for three more. And it will come down to this kind of titanic clash.

I mean, this is uncharted waters for Israel. In 60 years, we haven't seen this, which is the party that's number-one in the balloting can't garner a majority in the Knesset. So who does he lean towards, Tzipi Livni or Netanyahu, who says, "I could have a majority to actually govern"?

Prospects for U.S. envoy

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the outcome of who gets to govern makes a difference for the Obama agenda, which is -- I mean, he just appointed this very high-profile special envoy, George Mitchell, to go over there and try to not only kick-start the peace process in the Middle East, but see that as a lynchpin of a whole new approach to that part of the world.

AARON MILLER: I think it's going to be really tough, because in addition to a Palestinian broken house, a divided Palestinian national movement, the absence of one gun, one authority, one negotiating position, you now have...

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, you've got both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

AARON MILLER: Exactly. You now have to add to that, although the crisis isn't the same order of magnitude, an Israeli divided or broken house. And broken houses in the Middle East don't lead to bold and historic decisions.

When peace has come, very rarely, it's because bold Israeli prime ministers -- Menachem Begin, for example, Yitzhak Rabin -- and bold Arabs -- Anwar Sadat, King Hussein, even Yasser Arafat in his first incarnation -- had the power to make these decisions.

We're out of the age, frankly, of heroic politics when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. And that is going to present the Obama administration with a huge challenge.

George Mitchell is an extraordinary negotiator, talented man. I have profound respect for him. But the Obama administration is all dressed up, but there's nowhere right now for them to go.

And the more George Mitchell goes there without producing something, the more he becomes part of the political furniture. That's what happened in the Clinton administration, and that's something that an American president must prevent happening again, not being taken seriously by tiny powers who are all too interested in promoting their own political agendas at the expense of ours.

Mideast peace process

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that that's the danger here is that you have -- whoever ends up heading this government, it is a house divided? And does any leader in that situation have the clout and the authority and the confidence to make a path-breaking deal?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: No, I think Aaron made a very fair point. It's not a question of manipulating agendas. It's a question of, what is their capability, given the divisions?

If you look at the Middle East peace process like a football field, I don't know if anyone could throw a touchdown the length of the field and go 100 yards. The question is, given the coalition that's configured -- and we won't know for a few weeks -- but Netanyahu has said, "My biggest fault when I was doing this in the '90s is that I had a narrow right-wing government."

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, he became prime minister and he bonded with other right-wing parties.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. And I happened to speak to one of his top people this morning, who said, "We don't want to do that again." And if he could configure a broad government with Livni, one idea is even a rotation, although both sides reject that, but, remember, we're at the start of negotiations, not at the end.

The question is, can you take the ball -- if you can't take it 100 yards downfield, can you take it 70 or 80 yards? It might not end the conflict, but it could certainly put us in a better position than where we are right now.

Syrian, Palestinian issues

MARGARET WARNER: Very quickly, each of you, what would be your advice to the Obama administration right now and to George Mitchell?

AARON MILLER: Governing is about choosing. There is no conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians right now. You have to tend to it, but there may be an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty, and you ought to invest there.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I agree with that.

MARGARET WARNER: Invest in Syria...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: But I wouldn't neglect the Palestinian issue, because I think there's economic, institution building that has shown promise in the West Bank and security institution building. And that's kind of the unwritten good news. It doesn't get a lot of play here, but there are some good things going on. Don't neglect the Palestinian issue. Do as much as you can.

MARGARET WARNER: Attend it. All right, David Makovsky, Aaron Miller, thank you both.

AARON MILLER: It's a pleasure.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you.