The Magazine

An Election, but Who Won?

You'll have to wait awhile to find out who will govern Israel.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Jerusalem

No doubt President Obama had planned to call the winner of Israel's Tuesday elections to offer congratulations and suggest a visit to Washington. But Israel's bizarre and dysfunctional electoral system has produced no winner, only a mess likely to produce a weak government and perhaps new elections in two years or less.

As in the United States in 2000, there was no clear winner on election night. The Knesset has 120 members, so 61 are needed to govern. Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party increased its strength in parliament from 12 seats to 27, but this was one fewer than Tzipi Livni's Kadima party--and a disappointment because polls had led everyone to expect he would surpass her easily. Yet despite this good result for Livni, there was no victory for the left or center-left, for the Labor party fell to a historic low of 13 seats, and Meretz, further to the left, won only 3.

But our presidential system ultimately produced a single winner with full presidential powers in 2000. Winner really does take all in the United States. In Israel's parliamentary system, power will be divided in a fractious Knesset and in a coalition cabinet where whoever is prime minister will not have a majority for his or her own party--just a collection of ministers linked more by a desire for power than by ideological or political consensus. Livni claims the moral right to be prime minister because she edged out Netanyahu by one seat (or so it seemed from exit polls); he claims that right because the total vote for right-of-center parties exceeded that for the left. President Shimon Peres will wait for the official results on February 17, spend the following week consulting with all party leaders, and then ask either Netanyahu or Livni to take four to six weeks to try to put a coalition together. When Livni tried to do this last summer (after scandals forced Prime Minister Olmert to say he would resign), she failed. She could be asked to try now, and fail again; the math suggests that Netanyahu would have an easier time assembling 61 votes in the Knesset.

The outcome turns less on Peres, who is supposed to follow the recommendations and advice he gets from party leaders, than on Avigdor Lieberman, whose right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party jumped to 15 seats. A Russian (Moldovan) immigrant, Lieberman reached beyond his initial ethnic base and took right-wing votes from Netanyahu (and a few from Livni). It will be hard for Netanyahu or Livni to reach 61 seats without the 15 Lieberman won, making him a possible kingmaker. Lieberman runs his party as a fiefdom, so the decision will be his alone--unless Kadima and Likud (and perhaps Labor) form a coalition that excludes him. It does not seem likely that Lieberman would choose an alliance with Livni, when his natural partner is the right-of-center Likud, so the most likely outcomes are a "grand coalition" of Bibi and Tzipi (who together are only 4 votes short of a majority), or a more right-wing coalition including Lieberman. In discussions that have already begun, Israel's leading pols are engaged in back-room deals for who gets which cabinet ministry; the ghosts of Tammany Hall are smiling.

Israelis will now debate, yet again, changing their electoral system and adopting single-member constituencies, but meanwhile they need a new government. They won't have one for six weeks and maybe more, slowing down any thoughts in the Obama administration of rapid movement on Middle East matters. And when that new government is formed out of competing parties and leaders whose opinions of each other are often unprintable, our new Middle East envoy Sen. George Mitchell will find that figuring out Israel's new policies toward Iran, Hamas in Gaza, or negotiations with the Palestinian Authority takes even longer. It is hard to see any point to his planned late-February visit to Israel. Israel's new prime minister will probably visit the United States in April after Passover and dealing seriously with these key issues will begin only then.

Israel's election results are difficult to interpret as a strong endorsement of any person or ideology, and in that sense are a faithful reflection of the doubts and divisions here. Yet Israelis tend to face reality squarely and with determination, deriding pretty diplomatic evasions. And on security issues (which are always paramount) even a weak government, like that of Prime Minister Olmert today, can act--as it proved in Gaza.

Few Israelis believe there is any chance of comprehensive peace negotiations with the Palestinians now, with Gaza in the hands of Hamas and the "leadership" of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas looking even weaker than in past years. Abbas spent most of the recent Gaza war and the weeks since traveling, avoiding the sad realities that face him in Ramallah. Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad continues his work to sustain the West Bank economy and train a decent and effective police force, and is trying now to gain control of any Gaza reconstruction funds--both to keep them out of the hands of Hamas and to strengthen the PA's support in Gaza. But in all this he is hampered by a simple lack of funding, and he missed a payroll in February. Arab states continue to send the Palestinians gifts of extravagant rhetoric and countless Arab League resolutions--but not much cash.

Meanwhile Iran's influence in this region grows (a fact that, by the way, worries most Arab states as much as it worries Israel). Not only Iran's nuclear and missile programs but its role as chief ideological and financial backer of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups continues to expand. For Israelis, the main worry is whether their new government will be smart enough and tough enough to meet that challenge--and whether ours will.

Elliott Abrams was a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.