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Who won the election on Tuesday night and what do the results tell us about the composition of the next government?
Israeli voters decided two things on Tuesday. First, they decided that they want the political right to lead the country. Second, leftist voters decided that they want to be represented by a big party, so they abandoned Labor and Meretz and put their eggs in Kadima's basket.
These two decisions - one general and one sectoral - are what brought about the anomalous situation where the party with the most Knesset seats is incapable of forming the next governing coalition. Despite Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's stunning electoral achievement, she cannot form a coalition. Binyamin Netanyahu will be Israel's next prime minister. The Likud will form the next coalition.
But what sort of governing coalition will Netanyahu form? That is today's sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.
During the campaign, Netanyahu said he wants to form a broad governing coalition. Until Tuesday, he planned to bring the Labor Party led by Ehud Barak into his government while leaving Kadima out in the cold. It was his hope that as the odd man out, Kadima would be destroyed as a viable political entity.
The public, though, had other plans. On Tuesday, voters wiped out David Ben-Gurion's party as a political force in the country. Labor's senior leadership reacted to their defeat by declaring that the time has come to move into the opposition. There will be no coalition with Labor.
That leaves Kadima. If Netanyahu wants a leftist party in his government, he will need to bring in Kadima. Such a coalition would be based on a tripartite partnership between the Likud, Kadima and Israel Beiteinu.
Although Netanyahu clearly prefers such a broad coalition, it is not his only option. The other possibility is to form a government with his rightist political camp. A coalition of the Likud, Israel Beiteinu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Union and Habayit Hayehudi would constitute a stable governing majority that could withstand attempts by Kadima to bring down the government in the Knesset.
THE QUESTION is which coalition is best for the Likud? The answer to that question is debatable. But to begin to understand what should drive Netanyahu's decision, it is necessary to recognize his top priorities in office.
Netanyahu has made clear that his top priorities are preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, defeating Hamas and strengthening the economy.
Netanyahu's free market economic philosophy is shared by Kadima and Israel Beiteinu. It is not shared by Shas or Habayit Hayehudi. The National Union is neutral on this issue. So to cut income taxes by 20 percent, as Netanyahu has pledged, a coalition with Kadima is preferable to its rightist alternative. On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that Netanyahu will probably be able to push his economic policies through the Knesset with either governing coalition, particularly if he proposes them quickly.
This leaves the issue of Iran and its Hamas proxy in Gaza. Here the situation becomes more complicated. In a conversation on Thursday morning, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz argued in favor of a coalition with Kadima by noting that as the Kadima-led government's wars in Gaza and Lebanon, and its destruction of the Iranian-financed, North Korean built nuclear installation in Syria in September 2007 show, Kadima shares the Likud's willingness to use force against Israel's enemies.
At the same time, Steinitz acknowledged that Kadima used force in both Lebanon and Gaza to advance diplomatic aims that are diametrically opposed to the Likud's diplomatic aims. In Lebanon, Livni was the architect of the cease-fire with Hizbullah that paved the way for Hizbullah's rearmament, reassertion of control over south Lebanon, and effective takeover of the Lebanese government. In Gaza, the Kadima-led government is about to agree to a cease-fire that will in the end strengthen Hamas's grip on power and legitimize the terror group as a political force.
Moreover, unlike the Likud, Kadima has made establishing a Fatah-led Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and Gaza its most urgent strategic goal, followed only by its ardent desire to give Syria the Golan Heights. The Likud opposes both of these goals.
In contrast to Kadima, the rightist parties in Netanyahu's voter-made coalition share the Likud's philosophy both in terms of when to use force, and in terms of the diplomatic aims the resort to force are supposed to achieve. The rightist Knesset bloc would not agree to a cease-fire agreement in which Israel is required to release a thousand terrorists, including mass murderers, from prison. They would not agree to cease-fires that enable Hamas and Hizbullah to continue to arm, control territory or attack Israel. They would not agree to a national strategy that advocates subcontracting Israel's national security to international forces. And they oppose transferring Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights to Arab control.
THE DISPARITY between Kadima's and the Likud's strategic goals makes a rightist coalition seem like the best option. But there are reasons why an observer could reasonably reach a different conclusion. The existential threats Israel faces today from Iran and its proxies are exacerbated by the fact that the West's position on Israel is swiftly converging with the Arab world's position on Israel. Throughout Western Europe, elite opinion has swung against the Jewish state. Today not only can Israel expect no support from Europe for its moves to defend itself from its enemies, it can be all but certain that Europe will actively seek to weaken it. The only question is what means Europe chooses to adopt against Israel.
Presently, Europe suffices with threatening to prosecute Israeli military personnel and political leaders as war criminals, levying partial embargos on the sale of military equipment to Israel, supporting anti-Israel resolutions in international forums, and refusing to end its trade with Iran. In the future, the EU is liable to end its free trade agreements with Israel, seek Israel's delegitimization as a "racist" state, and perhaps join Russia in supplying Arab armies and Iran with advanced weapons and nuclear reactors.
As for the US, the Obama administration's interest in courting Teheran and the Arab world place Jerusalem on a collision course with Washington. Given the high priority the Obama administration has placed on appeasing Iran, its decision to end US sanctions against Syria, and its intense desire to establish a Palestinian state, it is fairly clear that Israel cannot expect to enjoy good relations with Washington in the coming years without adopting policies that would endanger its survival.
It is common wisdom in Israel that the Israeli Left is capable of limiting the level of hostility directed against Israel from the US and Europe. Livni exploited this popular belief during the electoral campaign when she warned that a rightist government would destroy Israel's relations with Washington. Apparently convinced by her warnings, some voices in the Likud argue that with Livni and Kadima in the government, the US and the EU will think twice before adopting openly hostile policies.
Unfortunately, this view is demonstrably false. As foreign minister in Ariel Sharon's government during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, Shimon Peres did not prevent the international Left in Europe and the US from accusing Israel of committing war crimes. The Kadima-led leftist government was unable to secure European support for Israel in the Second Lebanon War. The fact that Israel was led by the leftist Kadima-Labor government during the wars in Lebanon and Gaza did not improve the West's negative reaction to the fighting.
The generally ignored truth is that international hostility toward Israel is driven by factors extraneous to Israel. Consequently, Israel's governments have little ability to influence how foreign governments treat it, regardless of who forms those governments.
There is one intrinsic advantage that leftist parties bring to rightist-led coalitions. Leftist parties are capable of mobilizing the support of the domestic leftist elites for the government's actions.
Because the Left was in the government in 2003, 2006 and 2009, the media supported Defensive Shield, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. And because it was in the opposition during the 1982 Lebanon War and during the Palestinian uprising from 1988 to 1990 as well as in 2003, when Sharon led a rightist coalition, the political Left colluded with the leftist elites in the media, in Peace Now and its sister groups, as well as with foreign governments to undermine the government. Since Tuesday night, both the local media elites and Kadima leaders have made clear that they will consider a Likud-led rightist government illegitimate and will work to destabilize it with the intention of overthrowing it within a year or two.
It is true that it is hard to imagine that either Kadima or the leftists in the media would oppose a decision by the Netanyahu government to attack Iran's nuclear installations. But it is also true that they would seek to minimize any strategic advantage Israel might gain either locally or internationally from removing this clear and present danger to Israel specifically and to international security generally. In the aftermath of such attacks, Kadima would unquestionably blame the government for whatever punitive steps Washington and Brussels implement against Israel in retaliation for the attacks.
More disturbingly, in the event that Kadima leads the opposition, it is easy to imagine Livni and her cohorts in her party and in the media attacking the government for refusing to give land to Fatah in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem and for refusing to surrender the Golan Heights to Syria. Kadima's leaders will have open invitations to travel to Washington and Brussels to delegitimize the Netanyahu government's policies toward the Palestinians and the Syrians, and more likely than not, they will use them.
On the other hand, it is far from clear that the situation would be much better if Netanyahu were to bring Kadima into his coalition. Livni can hardly be expected to set aside her obsession with establishing a Palestinian state in Jerusalem, Gaza and Judea and Samaria, particularly given that she seems convinced that she won the elections.
IN SHORT, given their disparate strategic goals, as a senior coalition partner, Kadima can only be relied upon to support Netanyahu in implementing a limited set of policies. As Netanyahu considers his options for forming a coalition, he needs to answer four questions:
First, can Kadima's cooperation be assured in the event that the government decides to attack Iran's nuclear facilities?
Second, will having Kadima in the government bring Israel significantly more leverage with the Americans in the run up to or the aftermath of such a strike than not having it in the government?
Third, will the Likud be weakened more if Livni attempts to advance her Palestinian policy from within the government or from outside it?
And finally, as the Likud's senior coalition partner, will the damage Kadima causes the Likud through its devotion to Palestinian statehood and willingness to transfer the Golan Heights to Syria outweigh the advantage gained by its partnership in attacking Iran?
How Netanyahu answers these questions should determine the nature of his governing coalition.