Published on
The Independent/UK

Israeli Elections: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Donald Macintyre

Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, last night launched a
concerted final effort to become her nation's first woman leader since
Golda Meir, despite the rightwards shift in public opinion that has
threatened to propel Benjamin Netanyahu back into the premiership.

leader of the centrist Kadima party, who began the closing stages of
her campaign with a rally for Druze Arab voters in Galilee last night,
issued a direct personal challenge to Mr Netanyahu to agree to the
television debate which he has consistently refused.

As polls
showing the lead of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party has narrowed
to only two seats ahead of Kadima, Ms Livni's campaign team believes
she can overtake her rival by the time Israel goes to the polls on

Mr Netanyahu has emphasised the threats from Hamas and a nuclear Iran in his campaign.

Livni, who strongly supported the recent invasion of Gaza, but has
pledged to continue talks on a two-state solution with the moderate
West Bank Palestinian leadership, said there was a public demand from
potential leaders "to specify with which policies they plan to cope
with the threats, and lead [Israel] to a better future of peace and
quiet". Meanwhile the outgoing Kadima premier, Ehud Olmert, was making
what the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said were "supreme efforts" to
leave a positive legacy by securing the release of Gilad Shalit, the
army corporal seized by Gaza militants in 2006, before polling day.

TV reported on Friday that Turkish officials were holding talks in
Damascus with exiled leaders of Hamas, which has been seeking a
large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners in return.

At the
same time Mr Barak, Labour's prime ministerial candidate, told Channel
1 TV that Cpl Shalit was known to be "well, alive, breathing and OK".

added: "You know that I am a fierce critic of the Prime Minister, but
in these matters, in these days, he is making a great effort, as am I
... in order to expedite the process." Whether the formidable obstacles
to securing the release can be overcome remains to be seen, however.

Hamas official, Osama al-Muzaini, said talks on the issue had so far
made little progress because Israel "remained unwilling to pay the

While Mr Barak warned the release of Cpl Shalit would
require "painful decisions" - presumably on a prisoner exchange - the
electoral effect, if it happened, would probably be to help Labour and
Kadima at the expense of Likud and the increasingly popular Yisrael
Beiteinu, led by the hard-right Avigdor Lieberman.

According to
the polls, the main features of a relatively lacklustre election so far
have been the Likud comeback under Mr Netanyahu from its three-decade
low of just 12 Knesset seats in the 2006 election, and the seemingly
relentless rise of Mr Lieberman, who could yet prove the kingmaker in
forming a coalition after Tuesday.

Polls published on Friday -
the last allowed before election day - showed Likud with 25 to 27
seats, just ahead of Kadima, with 23 to 25. Mr Lieberman's party with
18 or 19, which, if fulfilled in actual voting, would push the
once-dominant Labour Party into fourth place.

Most analysts
think the rightward shift has resulted from a combination of two
factors. One is Hamas's continued control of Gaza. The other is the
stillbirth of the centrist programme under Mr Olmert of withdrawing
from settlements and negotiating a peace deal with the moderate
Palestinian leadership. This was envisaged at the international
Annapolis summit sponsored by President George Bush at the end of 2007.

The change also reflects the widespread popularity among
mainstream Israelis - despite the Palestinian death toll of more than
1,200 - of the three-week onslaught on Gaza. This had long been urged
by Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Lieberman, a harshly right-wing West Bank
settler who wants Israeli Arabs to forfeit their citizenship rights if
they fail to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state, was characterised on
Friday by a leading Israeli columnist, Nahum Barnea, as "the scarecrow
that panic-stricken Israelis want to place in the political cornfield
in the hope that the Arabs are crows... and take fright".

least in theory, Ms Livni could be asked by President Shimon Peres to
try to form a coalition even if Kadima does not emerge as the biggest
single party, especially if Ms Livni secures the support of Mr
Lieberman as a potential coalition partner. Like Ms Livni, Mr Lieberman
is secular, and could baulk at a Netanyahu-led government which
included ultra-orthodox parties such as Shas.

Nevertheless such
a move by President Peres - while constitutional - would be
unprecedented. It would provoke furious charges from Likud, if it is
the single biggest party, of being undemocratic. For now Ms Livni will
go all out to persuade the still-undecided fifth of the Israeli
electorate that she is the only candidate to stop the polarising Mr

Over coffee in one of the few downtown Jerusalem
cafes open on the Jewish sabbath, Maya Ayvo, 35, and her husband Ezer,
38, described yesterday how 15 of their mainstream middle-class family
members had discussed their "confusion" over how to vote at the
traditional Friday night meal the previous evening.

While most
did not want to vote for Mr Netanyahu or Mr Lieberman, said Mrs Ayvo,
"they like Tzipi Livni, but are not sure about her party; others like
the Labour Party, but are not sure about Barak".

Mrs Ayvo said
she had been toying with voting Green, as she did in 2006, or the
left-wing Zionist party Meretz, but that she had now come down in
favour of Ms Livni. This was partly because she was a woman, but "I
feel that this time I have to be responsible and not vote for a smaller
party, because this election is so important". She said that she would
be very disappointed if Ms Livni included Mr Lieberman in a coalition.

husband, who voted for the small Pensioners' Party in the last election
because he was fed up with the larger parties, said he had not yet made
up his mind, but might vote for Ms Livni. Like his wife, he supported
the war in Gaza. "I wasn't happy about it, but I think it was very
necessary," he said.

Meanwhile, over bacon, beer and coffee at
another cafe, in the city's German Colony district, what was for
Jerusalem an unusually leftist and secular group was debating the
respective merits of the left-of-centre parties. Most were Jewish, but
the group included a Christian Palestinian lawyer, Daoud Khoury. He and
a Jewish friend, Moshe Simchovich, supported the communist Arab-Jewish
party Hadash.

But Rachel, a 58-year-old teacher who asked for
her family name not to be used because of her public servant status,
said she would be voting for the newly combined Greens and Meimad
party, led by the liberal and popular Knesset education committee
chairman, Rabbi Michael Melchior. "The reason that Lieberman is doing
so well is because of the one-sided media coverage of the war in
Gaza,"she said.

Israel's four contenders for power

Tzipi Livni, 50

Minister and Kadima leader. Protégée of Ariel Sharon who was briefly a
Mossad agent in her youth. Has staked her appeal on a cleaner politics
and talks with the moderate West Bank Palestinian leadership over a
two-state solution. Like Barak, has not ruled out military option on
Iran. A hawk on Gaza, publicly opposed to idea of a negotiated end to
the Gaza war, saying Israel's role is to "fight terror" not to talk to
its perpetrators.

Ehud Barak, 66

Defence Minister
and Labour leader. Prime Minister 1999-2001 and a much-decorated
ex-military chief of staff. He went further than predecessors towards a
two-state solution but blamed Yasser Arafat for the collapse of the
Camp David talks. Favours an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas if
possible and was quicker than PM Ehud Olmert and Livni in seeking halt
to Gaza operation. More sceptical than either about negotiations with
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Benjamin Netanyahu, 59

of main right- wing opposition, Likud. Prime Minister 1996-99. Strong
opponent of Oslo accords and 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, over which he
resigned from Sharon government. Says Gaza military operation not
complete and that Hamas regime must be ended. Against territorial
concessions to Palestinians and says Iran must "not be armed with a
nuclear weapon". Says options "include everything that is necessary to
make this statement come true".

Avigdor Lieberman, 50

of Yisrael Beiteinu, secular hard-right party. Moldovan-born immigrant
who wants Israeli Arabs to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state or lose
the vote. Wants borders redrawn - unacceptable even to moderate
Palestinians - to put more than 100,000 Israeli Arabs in future
Palestinian state. Has faced corruption allegations. Israel may have to
act militarily alone in Iran "in worst-case scenario". Has suggested
treating Gaza as Russia did Chechnya.

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