Why Are the Israeli PM Candidates Fighting for the Support of This Man?

Winter arrived in Israel, literally and politically, on Tuesday. After months of a warm and rainless false spring, the tempests finally arrived on Election Day, as if an overly romantic cinematographer had waited for wild gusts and thunder before lining up the extras at the polling places and letting the cameras roll.

The results are grim and uncertain, and they portend a lasting political storm. It's true that centrist candidate Tzipi Livni apparently edged out rightist Benjamin Netanyahu: According to near final results, her Kadima party received 28 Knesset seats, one more than his Likud party. By custom, the leader of the party that wins the most Knesset seats normally forms the coalition and becomes prime minister.

But this time there's a rub: Together, the parties of the right received 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If Netanyahu can line up the support of the rest of the right, he will have a solid majority in parliament and become prime minister. In the hours after the election, both Netanyahu and Livni were declaring victory. Though days or weeks of intense coalition negotiations are likely, the odds favor Netanyahu.

The worst news, however, is that ultra-rightist Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Is Our Home party have won 15 Knesset seats. Lieberman is a blustering, bellicose figure in the mold of the European radical right. His platform focuses on disenfranchising Israel's Arab citizens, whom he decries as a fifth column. Lieberman's ascendancy threatens to transform the external Israeli-Arab conflict into an internal ethnic struggle between the Jewish majority and Arab minority.

Numerically, it would be possible for Livni, Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak, leader of the shrunken Labor Party, to form an alliance and leave Lieberman to rage from the opposition. Instead, both Netanyahu and Livni immediately sought Lieberman's support. On Wednesday, Livni met Lieberman and was quoted afterward as telling him, "This is a time of favor. … It is an opportunity for unity and for advancing subjects that are important to you as well." The competition for his support will allow Lieberman to increase his price, demanding control of powerful ministries and legislation favorable to his platform. This is a direct danger to Israel's fragile democracy and could further destabilize the volatile region.

Livni, foreign minister in the outgoing government, inherited a party discredited by corruption charges against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, by the costly 2006 war in Lebanon, and by Olmert's unmet promises to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. The war in Gaza -- the Olmert government's last gambit -- served only to legitimize the right's demand to solve problems through military force. In the campaign, Netanyahu claimed that the job of prime minister was "too big" for Livni, a barely disguised argument that her gender disqualified her. Under the circumstances, Livni's achievement appears impressive: Kadima won nearly as many seats as it did three years ago, when voters still associated it with its popular founder, Ariel Sharon.

Appearances are misleading, though. In 2006, the center and left won a majority of 70 Knesset seats. In this election, voters from the left moved to the centrist Kadima; former Kadima voters moved to the Likud; erstwhile Likud backers moved to Lieberman's party. The election tally indicates that a despairing electorate is succumbing to a laager mentality and that a growing number of Israeli Jews are open to Lieberman's warnings that internal enemies and democratic restrictions on power are the country's real problem.

Lieberman, 50, immigrated to Israel from Soviet Moldova in 1978. He began his political career as a Likud functionary. When Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, Lieberman became his chief of staff and earned a reputation as the enforcer who crushed dissent in the party. Eventually, facing a revolt from party veterans, Netanyahu eased Lieberman out of the job.

In response, Lieberman started his own party, initially appealing to the immigrants from the former Soviet Union who had poured into Israel in the 1990s. Many were professionals who found themselves working at semi-skilled jobs, competing with Israeli Arabs for jobs, living in towns that became immigrant ghettos. Some 300,000 were non-Jews, who were able to immigrate under Israel's Law of Return because of their family ties to Jews but who felt uncertain of their place in their new country.

The name of Lieberman's party, Israel Is Our Home, spoke to the immigrants' insecurities. With a stress on the word our, it also suggested that the country was not home to the Arab minority. It's a classic gambit of the racist right: Bolster one group's sense of belonging by attacking another as outsiders who threaten the nation. In the 1999 elections, Lieberman won just four seats in parliament. By 2006, that grew to 11. The latest increase indicates that his support has spread beyond his original immigrant base.

A central plank of Lieberman's platform is conditioning full citizenship on an oath of loyalty to the state, the flag, and the national anthem. Since Arab citizens are unhappy with the flag, featuring a Jewish star, and with the anthem, which speaks of the “Jewish soul,” the obvious goal is to make them decline the oath and lose the right to vote. Lieberman also rails against weak government. His party has proposed a "reform" that would allow the prime minister to appoint Cabinet members without parliamentary approval. During a state of emergency, the Cabinet or even the prime minister alone would be able to enact regulations superseding laws. It's a blueprint for one-man rule.

Lieberman’s foreign policy is equally strident. In an interview with me in 2006, he described Israel's conflict with the Palestinians as being one front in the conflict of civilizations. Against Iran, he said, neither diplomacy nor nuclear deterrence would work. “Anyone who draws the lessons from Hitler’s rise [knows Hitler] was telling the truth, and Ahmadinejad is telling the truth,” he said, referring to the Iranian president’s threats against Israel. “All attempts to pacify Hitler ended in World War II, and all attempts to appease Ahmadinejad are doomed to failure.” The unstated implication was that Israel will need to resort to force to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Given his party's strength, Lieberman will demand a senior position in the Cabinet regardless of who becomes prime minister. Wherever one imagines him -- as defense minister controlling day-to-day policy in the occupied territories, as finance minister cutting funds for Arab communities, as housing minister able to increase construction in settlements -- the vision is frightening. Whatever position he receives, his party's contingent in the Cabinet will press for hard-line policies. By competing for Lieberman's support in their fight with each other, Livni and Netanyahu put their desire to win over their country's future. In the aftermath of the election, it seems that the storm has only begun.

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