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Israel's Leprechaun Elections

Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni may have won the elections, but she may be unable to form a government.
Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni may have won the elections, but she may be unable to form a government.
The results of Israel's February 10 elections, while apparently clear on the surface, are in reality so tangled and filled with irony and counterpoint that it appears the voting population of the country has been possessed by Irish leprechauns.

On the one hand, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima (Forward) Party eked out a narrow tactical victory as the largest party in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament, with 28 seats. However, the entire center-left bloc combined only won 56-57 seats, well short of the 61 majority in the Knesset necessary to form a stable government.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party was dashed in its hopes to return to its traditional position over the past 32 years as Israel's largest party. It very narrowly fell short, winning a still impressive 27 seats, only one less than Kadima. But the right wing-nationalist bloc in all clearly outstripped the left, winning a total of 63-64 seats.

However, this is where the leprechauns and their magical mischief come into play: For the nationalist bloc is not united. The third-largest party in the new Knesset will be the rapidly rising right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu bloc of Avigdor Lieberman. That has now surpassed the fading old Labor Party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But Lieberman, a former chief of staff to Netanyahu, has made clear he is reluctant to serve under his old boss. And Netanyahu is notoriously proud, insecure, and thin-skinned.

"Bibi" made quite clear during the election campaign that he would far prefer to strike a deal with Barak and Labor. But he didn't expect Kadima to do so well and Labor to do so badly. And he didn't expect Lieberman to do so well, either.

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as a key figure.
Lieberman is far to the right of Netanyahu on security issues. But Netanyahu has a strong alliance with the religious Orthodox Jewish parties and Lieberman is their sworn enemy.

For Lieberman, a Russian Jewish relatively recent immigrant, has the overwhelmingly secular 750,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the past 20 years to Israel as his main constituency. And he has promised them to install civil marriage, burial, and other secular regulations in Israel to break the hold of the ultrareligious parties.

Doing The Math

This is where the numerical calculations become mind-numbing. If Netanyahu and Barak make common cause as they want to, between them they will have only 40 seats in the Knesset. The Shas Sephardi (Oriental Jewish) party will provide another 11 seats and United Torah Judaism a further five, bringing the Netanyahu-Barak alliance up to 56, along with any free-floating tiny parties in the Knesset.

If Livni can cut a deal with Lieberman, then she will have a base of at least 41 seats in the Knesset. The left-wing Meretz party will give her another three seats. And the other left-wing or secular parties about a dozen more. But Livni's total will still be short of the magic 61 unless the tacit support of the United Arab List, Ta'al, puts her just over the top.

If, however, Netanyahu can swallow his pride and Lieberman can resist the temptation to too obviously humiliate his old boss, they can combine for 43 seats. But the religious parties still count for more combined than Yisrael Beiteinu does, and they won't let Lieberman near any levers of power that could reduce their enormous clout over Israeli society. Expect, therefore, weeks of cut-throat intrigue and bewilderingly opaque deal-making. Only the leprechauns will be laughing.

Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for UPI. This commentary first appeared in the "Middle East Times." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL