Sat, Feb 14, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Israelis choose a firm hand, but is it strong enough to create peace?

By Daoud Kuttab

War and violence always have a direct effect on elections. Wars account for dramatic shifts in voter preferences and radical leaders and parties often poll much higher after a round of sharp violence than in normal times. Minority ethnic groups are therefore often able to sway the balance of power between major competing forces. This appears to have been precisely what has happened in Israel’s recent election.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party and the even harder right Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party achieved a dominant result that saw the Labor, the dominant party throughout Israel’s history, consigned to fourth place.

Throughout the campaign, Israeli leaders competed over who would deal more firmly (read: violently) with the Palestinians. In the aftermath of Israel’s assault on Gaza, Palestinians hoped that Israel would choose a leader who would focus on the need to end the suffering, lift the siege and begin rebuilding. It appears that just the opposite has happened.

The last time that Israeli elections were so obviously affected by violence was in 1996, when polling results shifted wildly in the run-up to the vote, finally allowing Netanyahu a razor-thin win over acting prime minister Shimon Peres. Competing against an older Peres (who had taken over after the assassination of then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin) Netanyahu dyed his hair white to appear more mature, and then took advantage of a badly handled mini-war and the anger of Israel’s Arab voters.

Now Peres is Israel’s president, while Netanyahu heads Likud. But not much has changed: Badly handled wars, incomplete peace talks and a boycott by Israel’s Arab voters made this year’s election seem almost like a carbon copy of 1996, when Rabin’s assassination ended the Palestinian-Israeli talks at a crucial time and Peres’ ill-advised war on South Lebanon reduced his large lead almost to a tie with Netanyahu. The anger of northern Israel’s Arab citizens at the killing of their brethren across the border led to a boycott that cost Peres the few thousand votes he needed to win.

Israel’s election this year is similar in many ways. It follows two controversial wars (although the current nominees were not directly involved in the 2006 war with Hezbollah). It also follows serious negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which are said to have moved both sides much closer to each other.

But wars and violence move electorates to the hawkish right and Israel’s operation in Gaza was no exception. Many Palestinian citizens of Israel, disgusted by the large-scale casualties inflicted on their brethren — and believing that to vote would mean to endorse the political system responsible for the carnage — stayed home once again.

US DIMENSION

The most important element now is the new administration in the US. The decisive victory of a candidate who opposed the Iraq War and favors direct talks with Iran will no doubt have a major influence on US-Israel relations and the peace process. The appointment of special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, who opposes Israel’s West Bank settlements, and Mitchell’s decision to open an office in Jerusalem, speaks volumes about what the new Israeli government should expect from the administration or US President Barack Obama.

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