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Key to who will govern Israel: Avigdor Lieberman

In a country divided between the centrist Kadima and hawkish Likud parties, a new kingmaker emerges from the far right.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2009

Tzipi Livni

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Israel is in a political bind. The nation voted Tuesday, but Wednesday two leaders claimed victory and a third-party newcomer found himself anointed the new Israeli "kingmaker."

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Centrist Tzipi Livni's Kadima won 28 seats in the Knesset, or parliament, while right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud took 27 – so slim a margin that neither can claim a governing majority.

Enter Avigdor Lieberman. The third-largest vote-getter was his far-right Yisrael Beytenu party that wants a "national, right-wing government." Common wisdom suggests an alliance with Mr. Netanyahu's party. But some analysts say that Mr. Lieberman might find common ground with Ms. Livni. Either way, Lieberman will have great sway over the makeup of Israel's next governing coalition, potentially winning control of key ministries.

Many observers – right and left – now worry that Israel is headed toward years of political gridlock and dysfunction, potentially putting any Middle East peacemaking in limbo.

"They're saying we hold the keys to Israel's next government, and I'm very glad to say we do," Lieberman said in a speech at his campaign headquarters. "We have our own path and our own principles, and we are not going to compromise on them." Among his goals, he said was the "elimination of Hamas," the Palestinian group that Israel battered in a 22-day war in Gaza that ended with an unofficial pair of cease-fires last month.

Lieberman also says that terrorism inside of Israel is more of a threat than terrorism from the Palestinian territories – essentially calling Israel's Arab minority a bigger threat to the Jewish state's existence than is the militant Hamas.

With 12 parties winning seats in Tuesday's vote, there are a whole range of permutations that political scientists can envision when they try to predict what kind of government will ultimately emerge.

While Ms. Livni edged out Mr. Netanyahu by one seat, which would traditionally give her the right to form a coalition government with her as prime minister, center, left-wing, and Arab parties won a total of only 54 seats. That makes it impossible for Livni to establish a governing majority with a clear preference for reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Right-wing parties won a total of 66 seats, which gives Netanyahu an advantage going forward.

The difficulty in putting together a collection of parties that are willing to sit at the same cabinet table is already looking like the unpleasant task of making seating arrangements for a clan in the midst of a simmering family feud.

The competing efforts of Livni and Netanyahu to concoct a coalition will involve not just differences in the macro-conflict with the Arab world, but a series of micro-conflicts here that pit religious versus secular, Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, and free-marketeers versus latter-day socialists.

"Unfortunately, this system gives enormous power to smaller parties. And at the moment, everything is in the hands of the radical right," says Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.