Coalition of the Unwilling
The result of the Israeli elections on February 10th expressed clear sentiments of the public's weariness of the political process and deep cynicism about the campaigning leaders. The question that faces the two leading contenders for prime minister, Kadima's Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud is two fold: Will they rise to the occasion, join forces and put the country on a path of recovery; or will they go their own separate ways to try to form a narrow coalition government and set the country on a course for political turmoil.
Amid corruption charges against the departing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the failure of Tzipi Livni, who assumed the leadership of the party, to form a new government in October, the nation was forced into an early election. The tumultuous events of the past three years have weighed heavily on the public, causing a political shift to the right of center. This includes the indecisive summer of 2006 war against Hezbollah, Hamas' violent provocations across the Gaza borders, the murky consequences of the Gaza war and a serious lack of progress in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. As a result, the Israelis went in droves to the polling stations voting for center-right parties that advocated a tough stance toward Palestinian militancy, albeit the public remained supportive of the peace negotiations.
Netanyahu's claim that the public has generally endorsed the right leaning block is technically correct. Based on the number of parliamentarians garnered by these parties which includes Shas and Yisrael Betainu with 11 and 15 respectively, Netanyahu can form a coalition government with a majority of about 65 out of 120 members. But such a coalition government is destined to fail long term, not only because it would be nearly impossible to develop a cohesive policy toward the Palestinians but would most likely set off a collision course for the Obama administration. If, on the other hand, Tzipi Livni manages to get the first crack at forming a government, she will have no choice but to offer Avigdor Lieberman–the leader of Yisrael Betainu, who openly advocates segregationist policy against the Israeli Palestinians–a significant role and consequently a say on all future government policy. This of course assumes that Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labor party which came in fourth with only 13 parliament members agrees to join the government with Lieberman as a big thorn on his side. The disappointing result for Labor, especially in the wake of the Gaza war which was thought to have given Barak a lift, has forced the party's leaders to reassess their political fortunes. They may decide to stay in the opposition with little prospect of rebuilding the base, or opt to join Kadima to create a single center and left-of-center party which will be a formidable block either in the opposition or in government.
What is best for the country in these trying times is forming a coalition government that is secular in nature and with a solid support in the Knesset (parliament). Such a government composed of Kadima, Likud, Labor and Meretz would have a commanding majority of 71 members in the Knesset and stand an excellent chance of serving the full four-year term. This is of course an ideal situation; the question here is whether Netanyahu and Livni can put their personal ambitions aside and place the nation's interest in front of their parties' differences. All four parties agree that the ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a two-state solution; they only differ in the approach.
Whereas Netanyahu believes that Israel must first pursue economic development in the occupied territories and stable security which can then lead to peace, Livni believes that only peace can lead to security and economic prosperity. Labor has been supportive of the Kadima approach while Meretz is less concerned with how to reach an agreement as long as one is reached. The big question as to who will be the prime minister can be resolved if Livni and Netanyahu agree on a rotation arrangement whereby each serve two years as prime minister (while the other alternates as either finance or foreign minister) as was once done between Labor and Likud in 1984. President Shimon Peres should be expected to do everything in his power to persuade the three leaders to heed the public's call and form a forward-looking and stable government that can deal with the nation's urgent concerns.
This kind of a coalition government could potentially develop good working relations with the United States. Although President Obama will be as committed to Israel's national security as any of his predecessors, he will not give Israel carte blanche to determine its policy toward the Palestinians as it sees fit under the pretext of national security. Netanyahu knows only too well that he cannot be on the wrong side of President Obama and that the US-Israel relationship is of supreme importance, especially because of the continuing regional instability and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Any future Israeli government will have to be prepared to demonstrate flexibility on the settlements and ultimately make the necessary territorial concessions. For this reason, an Israeli government with coalition partners who are against territorial concessions in the West Bank will either be a short-lived government or one with extremely tense relations with the United States.
Now that the Israeli public has spoken, it is the task of those who want to lead to listen carefully to what the public really wants. The Israelis want peace with security, so Livni and Netanyahu must either answer the call or fail their country in a muddled political process. This is their inescapable responsibility, and with the daunting tasks ahead, they should not shy away in the name of narrow-minded political gains.