Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israel 2009: The choice

It's election day in Israel, and if the opinion polls are correct, this could be a nail-biter as well as a game changer.

Ehud Olmert is out, of course, facing allegations in a corruption scandal. The two front runners are Olmert's replacement at Kadima, Tzipi Livni; and her main rival, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. A big part of the picture will be to see who has a strong enough base to put together a viable coalition.

A possible spoiler is Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, an immigrant from Moldova. He's been pulling about 10% of popular opinion with his proposals for swapping Arab-majority Israeli lands as "compensation" for the Israeli settlements in the West Bank -- and demanding that Arab Israeli citizens take a mandatory oath of loyalty to the country or face expulsion. This is not quite as radical as the Kahanist position that no Arabs can be trusted and all Palestinians should be expelled to Jordan or Egypt, but it comes close enough to make a lot of people scared (not American televangelists who support such a position, however).

Israel is one of a very few countries that has pure PR, with a popular vote quota of just 2%, which explains why people vote for religious, ethnic or single-issue parties and why coalitions there are so unweildly. Most democracies with PR set the quota rather higher, say 5%. It's hard to say whether the recent Gaza Strip campaign improved the odds for Livni any, but I suspect any Prime MInister of Israel would try something to stop the rocket attacks no matter how many civilians were affected.

It's not my place to say who I think should win -- I don't know enough about their domestic politics other than the Palestinian "question." But I don't think President Obama is going to have a fun time talking to either Livni or Netanyahu if Lieberman or radical religious parties are pulling the puppet strings; and the prospects for peace rest solely on what to do with the settlements. It was hard enough for the US to deal with a half million refugees in its own country after Katrina, many of whom had to permanently relocate.

Now imagine dealing with about a half million who refuse to leave because the land they're on was they believe granted by the Almighty, and who have the right to vote while the people who surround them live in a virtual police state. We think democracy in North America and Western Europe is a farce at times but it's nothing compared to the contradictions of a country that is both religious and secular at once and who faces enemies on several fronts. One has to wonder how much longer the US will have the stomach to keep vetoing resolutions criticizing Israel at the Security Council, or give the country $3 billion per year in foreign aid when it's supposed to be a developed country. If I was Obama, I'd phase out the funding over a number of years and redirect it to states that actually need foreign aid.

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