Americans aren’t the only people anxiously following the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Political leaders in Israel are also watching the balloting process, aware that whoever occupies the White House in the next four years could be a factor in who dominates the next Israeli government and its policies.
U.S. politics are always important to Israelis because Washington is the country’s biggest ally, its closest international collaborator and its primary supplier of sophisticated military equipment. But this year’s election in the United States comes at an especially delicate time, as Israel fears a growing existential threat from a nuclear-armed Iran and as its own politics is in a state of growing confusion.
A month of surprises
In late October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a political bombshell
when he announced that his Likud Party would merge with the ultra-right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Israeli political experts have been scratching their heads over the significance of the merger. A secular immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman opposes special privileges such as draft exemptions given to the haredi
, or Orthodox Jews. He takes a hard line against Iran, favors keeping Israeli settlements on West Bank and has proposed a two-state peace plan with the Palestinians based along ethnic lines - including a proposal to expel Israeli Arabs to any newly created Palestinian state.
The question confounding many Israeli political analysts was why Prime Minister Netanyahu went ahead with the merger. Does Netanyahu’s new alliance mean he has embraced Lieberman’s harder line policies, or is the merger just pragmatic politics in preparation for the next Israeli election?
directs The Washington Institute's
Project on the Middle East Peace Process. “I think Lieberman, while he’s got sharp elbows, and there might be a few policy disputes between them, I don’t think he’s seeking to move Netanyahu over to the right.”
Makovsky says Lieberman may like to “talk tough” because it attracts voters. “But he understands that Israel is in a very precarious policy environment, and the system would not be able to withstand that.”
Dr. Josef Olmert
, an adjunct professor at University of South Carolina, believes Netanyahu joined up with Lieberman simply to consolidate power and claim the most seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset - though he cautions the strategy could backfire on Netanyahu.
“Historically, political mergers don’t always guarantee more seats in the Knesset,” Olmert said. “There are moderate Likudniks
who may not be happy with unity with the Lieberman party, and I’m not sure that even in the constituency of Lieberman everybody will follow suit after the leader and vote for the united party.”
That’s why Dr. Olmert doubts whether new Likud/Beiteinu Party will be able to win the 42 out of 120 seats that Likud now holds in the Knesset. Even so, he believes the new party could still end up as the dominant force and “will be a blocking vote against the possibility of forming an alternative coalition government.”
Parties weighing options
Since the merger was announced, opposition groups have shifted into high gear, exploring how best to challenge Netanyahu’s newly merged superparty. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert is widely believed to be the only significant challenger now that he has been acquitted of
most of the corruption charges that forced him to resign in 2008.
Makovsky says that if Olmert decides to run, he could bring with him Kadima Party chief Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, who leads a new centrist party centrist Yesh Atid, others.
“I think Olmert is probably the only figure that could unite a good amount of these disparate smaller voices in the center under one banner,” Makovsky said. “If he says, ‘I’m staying out of it’ because he has one court case that is still pending, then the odds are we’re going to be left with the current mess in the middle.”
The former prime minister hasn’t made any announcements yet, and some analysts believe he’s waiting to see the outcome of the U.S. election
“There is no question that Mr. Netanyahu threw in his lot with Mitt Romney and the Republican Party,” says Dr. Olmert, the University of Carolina professor, and Ehud Olmert’s brother. “Netanyahu will be in good shape if indeed Romney is elected because then a lot of supporters in Israel would praise his political acumen.”
However, if Obama wins, says Dr. Olmert, “people will immediately say to Netanyahu, ‘you were not prudent enough in your dealings with Americans, and your talking about Iran at the height of their political campaign might also be interpreted as interference in elections’… and the other side could go after him.”
At this point, the only certainty is that Netanyahu’s alliance with Lieberman has created a great deal of uncertainty among Israel’s center and left-wing parties, and that these parties will be working overtime to seek unity and increase their influence as parliamentary elections approach.