Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
The setting seemed surreal, watching Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ardent ultranationalist, being warmly welcomed to an Arab town.
Only weeks ago Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party had introduced bills proposing to restrict the rights of Arab citizens deemed as disloyal to the Jewish state, and many had responded by denouncing him as a racist.
Yet here he was on weekend evening, being feted with oven- baked fish and skewered lamb, stuffing his mouth with freshly picked cherries after cuddling a local toddler on a porch in Shefaram, one of Israel’s largest Arab towns.
It was the same town where Jewish-Arab tensions had been running high last month as Israel put seven Shefaram men on trial for allegedly killing an armed soldier four years ago at the scene of a deadly shooting attack aboard a public bus in which four Arabs were killed. The suspects insist they acted in self defence and that Israel was following a double standard by trying them, a step Israel seldom takes against Jewish citizens accused of killing Arab assailants.
Pope Benedict visited Palestinian refugees this week in the West Bank, voicing sympathy for their frustration over six decades since they lost their homes in what is now Israel. He urged them and Israelis to break the cycle of violence that has seen Israel in recent years seal Palestinians behind walls and fences. When he left today, he repeated the message.
As it happened, today is also the 61st anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, that accompanied the end of the British Mandate in Palestine at midnight on May 14, 1948, and the simultaneous creation of the state of Israel. While Israelis celebrated their Independence Day a couple of weeks ago (according to the Jewish calendar), Palestinians staged traditional mourning marches yesterday and today. It is a mark of the factional divide that has crippled peace negotiations lately, that the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas complained of being denied the right to hold events in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas Islamists seized control two years ago. Reconciliation talks are due to resume in Cairo next week, though hopes are not running high that the two sides can mend their differences. Given all that, it’s perhaps not surprising that not a few Palestinians are depressed.
Israeli newspapers are abuzz this morning as they mull over the possibility that ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman could be appointed foreign minister in the government that Benjamin Netanyahu is working to stitch together.
The strong showing by Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Home) party in last month’s election – where it won the third most Knesset seats ahead of the Labour Party - has put the Moldovan-born former nightclub bouncer turned bureaucrat in a strong position in the lobbying for top ministerial posts in the new government.
Coalition-building in the aftermath of Israel’s inconclusive Feb. 10 election kicks into high gear on Wednesday, when the final results become official and President Shimon Peres begins sounding out party leaders on whom he should appoint to try to form the next administration.
To recap: neither the centrist Kadima party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nor Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud won enough seats for a majority in the 120-member parliament. Kadima took 28 seats to Likud’s 27, but Netanyahu could stand a better chance of getting the nod from Peres because he is likely to have the support of a majority right-wing bloc of 65 legislators.
It’s a recipe for trouble and it will be down to Israel’s veteran president, 85-year-old Shimon Peres to sort it out. In sum, Livni of the ruling Kadima centrists, has a one-seat lead over former premier Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. But neither party has as much as a quarter of the seats in the Knesset. Cue possibly weeks of haggling among the parties on forming a coalition government. By tradition, Peres ought to ask the leader of the biggest party – thus far, Livni – to try and build a cabinet first. But Netanyahu, rejecting her offer of joining her in a national unity government, says that overall the new parliament has a right-wing majority and that he is therefore in the better position to forge a stable administration.
Peres is no stranger to Israel’s convoluted coalition arithmetic. In 1984, he agreed to one of the weirdest election outcomes seen when, as left-wing Labour party leader, he did a deal with Yitzhak Shamir of Likud whereby the two spent two years each as prime minister during the four-year term of the parliament. There has been talk again today of the famous “rotation”, though few remember it with much fondness and recall a time of general political stalemate. Anxious to push for peace in the Middle East after Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, new U.S. President Barack Obama will be among those concerned at the gridlock.
There’s plenty of personal invective and general mudslinging going on in the final days of the Israeli election campaign. With 30-plus parties in the race and a good dozen of them in with a reasonable chance of parliamentary seats, everyone is fighting everyone else in a political version of a bar-room free-for-all.
While the main contenders slug it out over who is best placed to keep Israelis safe from attacks by Palestinians or a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, some of the most heated sparring is between smaller parties whose radically different constituencies highlight the diversity of Israeli society. Take Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu for example. Between them, they could get about a quarter of the vote on Tuesday and they’re slugging it out in some colourful language.