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Can Israel do a power-share?

February 11, 2009

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A predawn victory party for Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had all the trappings of a fairytale, including a ballroom setting in a Tel Aviv hotel.

The woman who had edged ahead of rival Benjamin Netanyahu in a national election stood to become Israel’s first woman prime minister in 30 years, and she had surely beaten the odds to get there, just weeks after polls predicted a resounding defeat for her centrist Kadima party.

“This is truly amazing, the public has had its say and it’s Tzipi,” Yaacov Edri, a former cabinet minister from Kadima, told me as supporters broke out in song and dance, proclaiming Livni as “queen of Israel,” and waving blue and red party flags.

A hip-hop style ode to the centrist party leader blared from loudspeakers.

Livni, flashing a triumphant V sign with her fingers called it “a wonderful day for Israel,” and said “the Israeli people have chosen Kadima and we will respect that choice by forming the next government, headed by Kadima.”

It didn’t take long for it to sink in for many that Livni’s victory celebration may have been premature. Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party trailed Kadima by only one seat in the 120-member parliament, also claimed victory, saying parties belonging to the “nationalist camp” had secured a governing majority.

“It’s not going to be easy at all,” Edri remarked about Livni’s chances of pulling together a coalition.Her first order of business may have to be implementing an electoral reform plan that whittles down the number of parties running in Israeli elections from the incredible 30 that took part in this latest contest.

But she may not get the chance.Many at the Kadima party seemed concerned that even if Livni ends up ahead once Israeli soldiers’ votes are counted by Thursday, she would still have an uphill battle to cobble together a workable governing coalition with a majority of right-leaning lawmakers.

At her victory party, Livni’s optimistic supporters, some wearing tee-shirts reading “Believni” and “It’s time to put a woman first”, savoured the moment. But becoming prime minister might entail entering into a power-sharing arrangement with Netanyahu — a so-called “rotation”.

Peres is now Israel’s president and it will be up to him to delegate the task of forming a new government to either Livni or Netanyahu. Such thinking isn’t as imaginary or fairytale-like as it may seem, even in Israel’s fractious political arena.

Livni and Netanyahu aren’t that far apart on U.S.-backed Middle East diplomacy with Palestinians.

Many Kadima members were Likud loyalists up until just several years ago. Both parties agree to forge a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and both think Hamas Islamists in Gaza must be subdued.

Livni, in her tempered victory speech, maintained that “Kadima has changed Israeli politics. No longer do we have a left and right divide, but a centre with a common ideology.”Likud is more supportive of Jewish settlement building in occupied land which has impeded peace talks for years, but its leaders have demonstrated a past readiness to compromise for peace.

It was the late Menachem Begin, Likud’s founder, who removed Israeli settlements from Sinai for a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

Some Israeli pundits say Labour and Kadima should merge to give any Kadima-led government enough room to maneuver diplomatically. The two parties barely differ on the key issues faced by Israel, writes Aluf Benn, political columnist for the respected Haaretz newspaper.

“The Israeli election results beg the conclusion that Kadima and Labour both unite and work as a single party in parliament so they can form a central axis for any possible (governing) coalition,” Benn wrote in Wednesday’s edition.

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