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Commentary Last Updated: Dec 23rd, 2008 - 01:29:07

The enviable position of the Israeli Arab
By Andrew Mathis
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Dec 23, 2008, 00:16

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There�s a long way to go until Israel�s vote for the 18th Knesset � about six weeks � but the first poll held after current ruling party Kadima announced its list of candidates late Wednesday shows Kadima and its only real competitor in this race, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu�s right-wing Likud, with an equal number of seats. Ma�ariv, Israel�s largest Hebrew-language evening paper, published a poll Friday giving each party 30 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

But perhaps the bigger story is that the left-wing parties� seats now outnumber the right-wing parties,� leaving out the religious parties and the Arabs (for the moment). Labor and Meretz (the social democrats) would add another 19 seats to Acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni�s 30, giving her 49 total, while the ultra-right-wing Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu parties can provide only 17 to Netanyahu�s for a total of 47. For the first time in the polling over the past two months, the left has more votes than the right, if one considers the self-styled �centrist� Kadima to be on the left.

But neither Livni nor Netanyahu can form a majority government without 61 seats. So they�re both going to have to go to the religious parties, because even if Livni did approach the Arabs to join a coalition, their 10 seats will still leave her two seats too few. The Sephardi religious party Shas has nine seats to offer either Livni or Netanyahu according to the Ma�ariv poll, but Livni�s negotiations two months ago to form a government with Shas as a member failed, and there has been nothing but rancor from Shas toward her since then.

The good news for Livni is that, for the first time since the party was founded in 1992, United Torah Judaism will not run a combined list of its two Ashkenazi factions, Agudat Yisrael (Chasidic Jews) and Degel ha-Torah (so-called Lithuanian Jews). The factions will instead run separate lists. This means that Livni does not have to convince both Ashkenazi religious parties to join her coalition. She can make a deal with one of them and, provided she has the Arabs on board, she can leave the other out in the cold, should she so choose. Of course, it would be wise for any potential Prime Minister to consider bringing in as large a coalition as possible, as the probability of dropping out of a coalition in Israel is about 100%, but Livni at least has a bit of breathing room with regard to the Ashkenazi religious parties and less back-room bargaining to have to do if she is the next Prime Minister. But the Arabs have to be in her coalition.

Netanyahu, needless to say, cannot count on the Arab parties to put him over the 61-vote threshold. With 47 seats before approaching the religious parties, he will need Shas to be in a coalition with him. Given the way Shas has tended to behave since its remarkable (and only impressive) 1999 electoral showing, their demands will be significant and they will undoubtedly pull out of a Netanyahu-led government as soon as he crosses them.

But Shas in a Netanyahu coalition only amounts 56 seats according to the Ma�ariv poll. All the rest of the religious parties� seats combined give him the 61 seats he needs, but it would be an unstable coalition that would fall apart the minute he made any concession that one of the coalition members found distasteful. He lost coalition members in the 1990s, not for ceding any Palestinian land but merely for agreeing to redeploy tanks and troops outside a single city, i.e., Hebron.

By leaving out Shas, Livni avoids the most problematic party in the State of Israel and, thus, promises a more stable government. But, as noted, it�s a long time till the election, and much can happen in six weeks. That a Netanyahu-led coalition would be short-lived is little comfort when one considers how much damage can be done in such a volatile region in so little time.

The bottom line comes down to Livni needing the Arabs to back her more than the Arabs need her or any other potential Prime Minister. That�s an enviable position to be in, if you�re an Israeli Arab � a rare occasion for that demographic group, to be sure. Israeli Arabs and religious parties have served in coalitions together in the past � even under Menachem Begin, unbelievably � and there�s no reason to think that they still can�t.

Livni just has to be brave and accept that the inevitable criticisms from the Netanyahu-led right wing are less important than establishing a lasting peace with the Palestinians. And, what with the high Arab voter turnout in the Kadima primary, she does now owe the Arab sector at least one favor � probably more. Unless there is a precipitous decline in the polling number for the Likud, which is doubtful, Livni will have to include the Arabs in a coalition. They can make or break the government. If Livni is smart, she�ll do the right thing.

Ben Terrall is a freelance journalist who has written more than a bit about Haiti since the February 2004 U.S.-backed coup which ousted the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

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