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Print edition : Mar 13, 2009 T+T-
Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud leader.-AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud leader.-AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

THERE were no shocks or surprises in the results of the elections to the 18th Knesset (parliament). Opinion polls had indicated more or less the outcome revealed on the night of February 10, when voting ended. Nevertheless, older Israelis, such as this writer, were bemused to see the Labour Party, which dominated Israel in its first 30 years (and for half a century before independence), fall to the fourth place. That the Far-Right party called Israel Baitenu (Israel Our Home), led by the Russian immigrant Avigdor (Ivet) Liberman, has become the third largest party heightens the strangeness.

In reality, there is nothing unusual about a political landscape in which several parties with only minute ideological-programmatical differences share the bulk of the electorate. That is how it is in most of Western Europe, except Spain; it is so in the United Kingdom after the rise of New Labour; and such is the case in the United States and Canada. To see a real clash of ideologies and policies one needs to venture further in Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, for example, the lines are sharply drawn.

Back to Israel. The international media have dubbed Kadima, created by Ariel Sharon and led since his collapse by Tzipi Livni, a centrist party; Likud, the party founded by Menachem Begin, a right-wing party; and Israel Baitenu, which began as a roost for disgruntled Russian immigrants, as Far Right. They describe Labour as Left although it is led by Ehud Barak, a super-hawk, Israels most decorated soldier, the man who wrecked U.S. President Bill Clintons peace initiative and provoked the second Intifada. If Barak harbours any leftist social-economic ideas, it is a well-kept secret.

In fact, the anaemic Zionist Left has been slowly dissolving and vanishing from the scene. Even Meretz, that apology for a peace camp with a tendency to utter little cries of dismay at the worst actions of the Israeli armed forces, has shrunk further, losing a couple of its more assertive Members of the Knesset, Zehava Galon and Avshalom Vilan. This movement has served as a fig leaf for some of Israels leading writers and intellectuals, for example, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, who approve of the current assault on an Arab population but express moral displeasure at some of the war crimes committed in the course of it. These people are highly conscious of the history books and hope to be vindicated by whomever writes them.

There are a number of small parties clustered around the four leading blocs. There are the Arab parties, two of which had to petition the High Court of Justice to stop a right-wing attempt to disqualify them, and the Communist Party, which is mixed Jewish and Arab (it is holding its own with four seats).

Bigger than these are the Jewish religious and ultra-orthodox parties, notably Shas, led by rabbis from the various Jewish communities. Most of them are extreme nationalists and are happy to encourage the Right. They have their own stake in the West Bank settlements populated by their religious flocks and will fight tooth and nail to hold on to them and, indeed, to keep enlarging them. There is something sad about these people, who are far from well-off, who often depend on handouts from generous supporters abroad and government family subsidies and yet ally themselves firmly with the Right and the Far Right, which are led by fat cats and cater to the top economic and financial strata.

There are also the non-Zionist ultra-orthodox parties, strange chimeras that are content to enjoy the handouts without accepting the Zionist ideology underpinning them. They are nice to the Arab world and even applaud Irans Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has made a speciality of predicting the demise of Israel. Politically, though, they are a negligible quantity.

The haggling is already in full spate. Kadima, Likud, Israel Baitenu and Labour are all trading. It is a numbers game. Israel has been here before it even had a rotating Cabinet in the 1980s, when Labour and Likud came up roughly even and formed a national government with Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) and Shimon Peres (Labour) taking turns as premiers.

It was under Peres watch that Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician-turnedwhistle-blower, was abducted from Europe and taken secretly to Israel, where he was convicted of treason and espionage. Peres, as the father of Israels nuclear arsenal, handled the situation with great cunning: the trial (held entirely behind closed doors) validated Vanunus revelations while appearing to harden the lid of secrecy over the Dimona reactor and its products.

This same old fox, now aged 85, as the President of Israel will manoeuvre the new set of players on the board as they jockey for positions in the new government.

It is widely assumed that the Prime Minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), with Livni and Liberman holding important Ministries. Some speculate that Liberman will get the Ministry of Defence, an idea that terrifies even right-wingers. It is an awful thought that this man might have his finger on the red button that would unleash the nuclear arsenal hence, probably, the third world war. He has already touted such ideas as flattening Teheran and bombing Egypts great Aswan dam, thereby inundating Cairo and much more. The fervent hope is that even Netanyahu would be wary of giving the former nightclub bouncer such apocalyptic power.

What everyone is wondering is how Netanyahu will get on with U.S. President Barack Obama. Netanyahu, according to insider tales, got on Bill Clintons nerves and infuriated leading members of his administration. Though the new administration includes some known pro-Israel figures (notably, Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff), it is not so deeply in hock to the Zionist lobby as were some former administrations. Thus, Obama may not be as willing to dance to Israels tune as was his predecessor, who actually called Ariel Sharon a man of peace.