It’s Tzipi against Bibi in crucial Israeli elections

February 9th, 2009 - 2:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Tel Aviv, Feb 9 (DPA) The upcoming Israeli elections are crucial for the Middle East peace process. Yet that process, revived a little more than one year ago after a seven-year freeze, is hardly on the mind of the average Israeli voter.
With Tuesday’s poll scheduled less than one month after Israel ended a ferocious offensive in Gaza, it is security - not the peace process - which is topping the public agenda.

A victory for the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud is likely to spell years of stagnation, while one for the centrist Tzipi Livni of Kadima would see negotiations at least continue in their present form, albeit with no magic wand.

As Livni, using Netanyahu’s nickname, put it herself: “It’s Tzipi against Bibi.”

In an attempt to appeal to a broader electorate including the centre, and to reassure world leaders with whom he will have to work as prime minister, Netanyahu has somewhat modified his plan for “economic peace” which called for economic development of the West Bank while delaying negotiations indefinitely.

Netanyahu now promises he will not break off the talks and is “committed to a process with the Palestinians that will combine negotiations with economic development”.

But a spokesman clarified he wants to discuss security first before dealing with other “core issues” of the conflict. He has also vowed unequivocally he will not give up East Jerusalem, nor the Jordan Valley, which would make deadlock inevitable.

Netanyahu also opposes a fully sovereign Palestinian state which could sign treaties with Israel’s enemies.

The 59-year-old opposition leader has vowed to “finish the job” of Israel’s Gaza offensive and topple the Hamas government in the strip. His 51-year-old adversary, Foreign Minister Livni, has threatened she would launch another offensive if rocket attacks from Gaza continue.

Livni is no ultra dove, but nevertheless a staunch believer in a two-state solution to the conflict. Currently Israel’s chief negotiator, she would continue the intense negotiating process launched in Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007.

However most Israelis see no point in conducting negotiations with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, widely seen as too weak to implement a treaty anyway, when Hamas, which does not recognise Israel’s right to exist, remains in control of the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, currently the favourite, is quick to tap on these sentiments.

“If you think that the restraint opposite Hamas was a mistake (…) you think like the Likud, you think like Benjamin Netanyahu,” declares his television ad.

The Likud, which lagged slightly behind Livni early on in the election campaign last autumn, opened a gap when violence in Gaza flared further. It has held a clear lead since.

Politicians, even some in Kadima behind closed doors, are already talking as if victory for Netanyahu is a certainty and have begun considering the kind of coalition he is likely to build. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, expected to come in fifth and traditionally a coalition breaker or maker, has already announced even before the election that it will recommend to President Shimon Peres he charge Netanyahu with forming the next government.

Despite the support by the right-wing, Netanyahu has said he wants a broad coalition, including Labour, Kadima, or both.

Even if Livni makes a dramatic recovery and emerges against all current expectations as the winner, the right-wing bloc is now likely to become a majority in the Israeli parliament. She would have a hard time pushing through any progress in the peace process.

Livni paved the way for the early elections when she announced in late October that she was unable to form a new government, one month after Kadima’s Ehud Olmert resigned the premiership amid corruption allegations. At the time, she refused to sign a coalition deal with Shas that ruled out negotiations on Jerusalem, saying such a deal would place her at the head of a “paralysed cabinet” and would “block every possibility for hope and peace in the state of Israel”.

Unable to form a coalition then, she would have even more difficulty building a pro-peace one now.

At least 15 percent of voters - the equivalent of 18 mandates in the 120-seat Israeli parliament - say they are still undecided. Livni hopes to win over enough of those to close the gap of several mandates between Kadima and the Likud.

“Don’t vote out of fear. Don’t vote out of desperation. Vote out of hope!” she implores in her television ad.

But whether that sums up the current mood in Israel is a big question.

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