Known unknowns: Israel after the election

Known unknowns: Israel after the election

In the Middle East, where uncertainty is the norm, uncertainty is increasing.

In October 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for elections in January 2013 because of internal problems within his coalition government. Instead of providing a clear mandate, the January election created uncertainty about the next Israeli government.

The slate presented by Likud and its coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, elected the largest bloc of Knesset members, 31, but down 11 seats from the prior Knesset. In second place was Yesh Atid, a new party with 19 votes.

In a more fractured Knesset, Netanyahu has been having a difficult time forming a new governing coalition with 61 seats, a Knesset majority, because many potential coalition partners are incompatible. So far, only one deal has been made with the centrist Hatnuah led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, bringing six seats to his coalition, resulting in a coalition of 37 seats, 24 seats shy of a majority.

Prior to the election, all eyes were on the rising star of Naftali Bennett and his Bayit Yehudi party, which garnered 12 seats in the new Knesset, up five seats. But the out-of-nowhere Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, stole Bennett’s thunder. Lapid and Bennett control 31 seats between them, the same as Likud-Beiteinu.

The question is whether Netanyahu will be able to form a government before a March 2 deadline. He can ask for a single two-week extension, or President Shimon Peres could hand the job to another party leader. If no government emerged, Israelis would have to go to the polls again.

This fluid situation caused the Associated Press to wonder whether Netanyahu’s decision to bring “dovish rival” Livni into his Cabinet as both justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians backfired. The appointment has drawn criticism from both Israelis and Palestinians, fueling speculation that Netanyahu will fail to form a government, leaving the job to Lapid.

Meanwhile, Arutz Sheva describes an agreement between the centrist Lapid and the arch-nationalist Bennett that neither will enter into a coalition without the other. Netanyahu needs one of these strange bedfellows to successfully form a coalition.

Arutz Sheva says this pact is one of three things: a “cynical tactical move” by Bennett to win a powerful Cabinet portfolio; a “revolutionary ideological-political pact” that will “drive non-Zionist forces to the sidelines,” or an act of “irresponsible and amateurish brinkmanship” that might bring down Likud and its fellow nationalists.

Polls published last Friday show that Likud would take a beating if a new election were held. Yesh Atid would be the big winner.

In the midst of this political turmoil, President Obama will visit Israel as part of a Middle East tour in March. The exact dates are unknown.

Will there be an empowered Israeli government to meet him? The agenda will undoubtedly include the peace process and Iran, which has just announced acceleration of its uranium enrichment program with the installation of advanced centrifuges, identified sites for 16 more nuclear reactors, and announced the discovery of new deposits of uranium ore.

The Jerusalem Post, in a Purim humor issue, said the purpose of Obama’s visit is to formally accept the title of opposition leader to Netanyahu.

Political humor aside, there is uncertainty on the American side too, much of which centers on the attitude of the second Obama administration toward Israel.

New Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip abroad will cover nine countries, but not Israel, causing the Brookings Institute’s Marvin Kalb to ask “What’s up?” A number of reasons have been advanced, says Kalb, but none make terribly much sense.

Kalb writes, “Kerry, by skipping Israel, is missing an opportunity to create a better relationship with Israel. That’s too bad, because Kerry could have done what his boss did not do at the beginning of his first administration — namely, ease Israel’s chronic uneasiness by coordinating policy in the Middle East.”

Then there is the pending nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Things have not been going well for the nomination. There was Hagel’s poor performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. There is Hagel’s refusal to disclose foreign associations and sources of foreign income. And, of course, there are Hagel’s statements which could be deemed either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Deroy Murdock had a compendium of such statements in the National Review Online.

Sen. Chuck Schumer again came to Hagel’s defense. In his one-on-one with the nominee, Schumer said Hagel “almost had tears in his eyes” when Schumer described the double standards which have been applied to Jews over the centuries. Sorry, Senator: When it comes to the security of Israel, that doesn’t cut it. Schumer did not state whether Hagel had a verbal response.

There are many other factors of uncertainty to factor into the Middle East mix, including the Palestinian reaction. But looking only through the prism of US-Israel relations, I wonder if the Obama trip should be put off at least until the major players are known.

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