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Why Bibi May Be Better

It’s a sad state of affairs when someone who wants only the best for Israel and has worked for many years to help the effort toward peace and security realizes that the best choice available is Benjamin Netanyahu. But that’s what we’ve come to. Although Tzipi Livni’s Kadima squeaked out the most votes in Tuesday’s Israeli election, Likud and Netanyahu are in the best position to form a new government. What might be less clear is why Bibi is a better choice for Israel than Livni. The reason comes down, in large part, to Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party. They came out the biggest winners, gathering the third highest share of the vote and a pivotal 15 seats in the next Knesset. Lieberman ran on a platform that made little effort to conceal its basic racism. Few in Israel believe that his push to make all Israelis sign a loyalty oath is anything less than a prelude to attempts to drive 1/5 of Israel’s citizens, the Arab sector, out of the country. Indeed, Yisrael Beiteinu demonstrated its racism again on Election Day, barring Arab Israeli journalists from covering a party gathering, while allowing in Jewish reporters and foreigners. Lieberman’s rise reflects growing racism, with fascistic tendencies, in Israel. But with a strong presence in the next government, Lieberman and his party will be in a position to enhance the prominence of such feelings in the larger Israeli culture to a much greater extent. Much more than the qassam rockets form Gaza, or even the more substantial threats from Hezbollah and Iran, this is the real peril for the future of a democratic Israel. Why, then, is it better to have Bibi in the Prime Minister’s office than Livni? To begin with, Likud has some options to bringing Yisrael Beiteinu into a governing coalition. They can offer the Defense Ministry again to Ehud Barak and likely get Labor to join. If they offer some enticement to Shas as well, they can have a clear majority in the Knesset without Lieberman. Kadima has no such option. Unless they ask the Arab parties to join a coalition (something no major Israeli party has ever seriously considered), they do not have enough seats among potential partners to gain a majority in the Knesset without Yisrael Beiteinu. That means Lieberman has Livni much more at his mercy than he does Netanyahu, and can demand a higher price for joining. Moreover, should Yisrael Beiteinu join a Likud coalition, there would be pressure to show loyalty to maintaining the power of the clear right-wing bloc. In coalition with Kadima, they would have no compunction about bolting the government the first time it did not act in accordance with Lieberman’s wishes. In terms of foreign policy, there is also reason to think things will work out much better with Netanyahu at the helm than Livni. Historically, many Israeli compromises have not come from the perceived "doves," but from the hawks: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, even Netanyahu himself. In all of those instances, response to foreign pressure, or the desire to pre-empt such pressure, played a key role in the decision to make those concessions. Most analysts, this one included, believe that, in the near term, decisive American diplomacy will be the key to progress with the Palestinians and in moving toward a broader agreement based on the Arab League offer, which might not be on the table much longer. An Israeli government that is perceived as right-wing will be a much tougher sell here in Washington. It will be less endearing to Congress and the White House, but will also be forced to deal pragmatically with them. A perceived moderate like Livni (whose moderate nature is more perception than reality, though she is certainly more of a diplomat than Bibi) would face less American pressure than a perceived hawk. Yet both hawk and dove are equally unlikely to take serious steps without American pressure. So American diplomacy, while perhaps in for a bumpier ride, can be more effective with Netanyahu than with Livni. But in the end, the question of peace was never really much of a debate in this election. None of the top three candidates has the combination of political will, courage and support to take the dangerous steps toward peace. Whoever won, the best hope for progress before the possibility of a two-state solution disappears forever was going to rest with the new American administration (and a thin hope that is). What is crucial, however, is limiting Lieberman’s influence on Israeli society. Whatever the future holds for peace and security for Israel, for the ending of Israel’s oppressive and self-destructive occupation, Lieberman’s rise threatens everything that is still good in Israeli society. It threatens every democratic, civil libertarian, and ethical principle on which the best ideals of Zionism were built. Perhaps his prominence will wake Israelis up to the wolf in their fold. But Yisrael Beiteinu’s strong showing is enough to do that, if anything will. A more prominent role for Lieberman can only do more harm. And, bizarrely, his influence is likely to be much stronger in a Kadima government than a Likud one.

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