Sunday, November 02, 2008

Let the Campaigns Begin

With the U.S. presidential election campaigns drawing to a close and Americans waiting eagerly for its outcome, Israeli political machines are in full swing organizing for a showdown of equally historic proportions. It is of course far too early to call the Israeli elections, which will be held on February 10, 2009, but the outlines of the campaigns that the major parties will run are already visible.

The Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is convinced that it will make a major comeback and determined to sweep to power in convincing fashion. Current polls, have the party running neck-to-neck with Kadima, while they predict that the Labor Party is headed for a devastating defeat. But it is not at all clear whether Netanyahu would be able to form the kind of government that the Israeli right is dreaming of. To be sure, his campaign will attempt to capitalize on widespread discontent in Israeli society about the lack of progress achieved since Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza. Furthermore, the religious and secular right is regrouping around a united Jerusalem and the protection of the West Bank settlements. 

Such a platform, however, will make it difficult for the Likud to bring in Ehud Barak's Labor Party or Tsipi Livni's Kadima into a coalition government. Hence, Netanyahu has two choices: to win at least 40 seats (out of the 120 seats in the Knesset) and to form a coalition with Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Religious Party, and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, or, to back-pedal immediately on all those slogans and bring the Labor Party into the government. 

There is no telling what the next three months will bring to the Middle East. While progress on the Palestinian front appears hopelessly stalled, we may see slightly more movement on the Syrian track. The latter will depend on the policies that the president-elect of the United States decides to adopt. Olmert, as head of the transitional government, has the legal authority to continue negotiations. Will the Syrians take these talks seriously? Will they prefer to wait for a (potentially more right-wing) new government to form in February, or do they believe that they could grasp the most favorable settlemetn now?

While Bibi today looks like the man to beat, Tsipi Livni has distinct advantages over her challenger from the Likud. Netanyahu's government, like Barak's, is not remembered as an especially successful one. Both of these politicians' styles alienated some supporters of their parties. They will have to invest in overturning these perceptions. Livni, on the other hand, does not have such liabilities, despite boasting considerable experience in the executive branch of the government. She remains somewhat enigmatic in the eyes of many voters, but they may respond very favorably to her messages when she devotes herself fully to campaigning.

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