Obama's Mideast policies face their first test in Israel

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's promise to seek Middle East peace aggressively faces its first test Tuesday, not at the negotiating table or on the battlefield, but at the hands of Israeli voters.

Israelis choose a new prime minister in elections for the Knesset, or parliament, that also will determine whether Obama has a willing Israeli partner in talks with the Palestinians or a reluctant one.

One likely outcome, according to polls and analysts, is an unstable coalition government whose members could find it hard to strike the compromises necessary to reach agreement on sensitive issues such as the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Palestinian refugees.

Final polls find the race tightening between the rightist Likud party, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the centrist Kadima party, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The campaign's biggest surprise, however, has been the rise of populist politician Avigdor Lieberman, who's questioned the loyalty of Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens and called on all Israelis to sign oaths supporting Israel as a Jewish state or be stripped of their citizenship.

Lieberman's Israel Is Our Home party could win 15 to 20 Knesset seats, making it a potent force in talks to form a governing coalition.

Likud's Netanyahu is skeptical of moving swiftly to political agreement with the Palestinians, although it isn't known how he'd govern should his party win. Livni, while she's no dove, has been a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian talks that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice restarted 15 months ago.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator in the 1990s, said that no party seemed likely to win even a quarter of the Knesset's 120 seats.

"It will be a very unstable coalition, without a central, strong pillar," Levy, of the Washington-based research center the New America Foundation, said in an election eve telephone interview from Israel.

That, he said, will put the onus on outside mediators, particularly the United States, to come up with a peace formula and press forward with it.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged from the outset to get involved more aggressively in Middle East diplomacy than President George W. Bush did. Obama appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as his special envoy on Jan. 22, and immediately dispatched him to the region.

Obama and Clinton have given no clues to their plans, however. Nor is it clear how hard they'll press Israelis, Palestinians and Arab countries when the inevitable road blocks to progress arise.

Netanyahu, whose lead in the polls has dwindled as Lieberman's has surged, opposes territorial concessions to the Palestinians anytime soon. Instead, he advocates focusing talks on strengthening the Palestinian economy, an approach that the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, rejects.

Yet Netanyahu also has shown a readiness to make tactical adjustments. As the prime minister beginning in 1996, his policies were a frequent source of friction with the Clinton administration. He was defeated for re-election in 1999.

The lesson Netanyahu learned from those years "is that I can get tripped up domestically if I get on the wrong side of the White House," Levy said. "Bibi is an opportunist. Bibi is pressure-able," he said, using Netanyahu's nickname.

Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote Sunday that Netanyahu had told colleagues privately that the Likud party "might get elected but we won't be able to govern."

"Israel is liable to wake up on Wednesday morning with a crumbled, extortion-prone political arena that is filled with a lot of splinter parties but without a governing party," Barnea wrote. "Netanyahu's assessment is that within a year to 18 months we are going to have to hold elections again. He may be being optimistic."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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