Israel's mess: the real culprit

If it wasn’t for the Kadima leader, the country could be on the path to peace


Who has come off worse in the spat between Israel and the US over building in Jerusalem? There's not much to choose between the principals.

US President Barack Obama has confirmed that he is a bully, responding aggressively to weakness and snubbing allies while kowtowing to dictators and rogues. Worse, he shows little understanding of such Middle East realities as the constraints of Israeli coalition politics, the almost unanimous agreement among Israelis over the status of Jerusalem, and the connection between his rough treatment of Israel and escalating waves of Palestinian violence.

Meanwhile, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, who seemed to have a successful first year in power, is unravelling under the international pressure.

Just as in his failed first term, today's Bibi panics easily, cannot control a rebellious coalition or work out how to handle a hostile American President. He is a weak tactician - barging in on a still-fuming Obama in Washington following the debacle with Joe Biden - and a weak strategist, with no game-plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Livni’s refusal to join the government has forced Netanyahu into instability

But there is a third player tarnished by this crisis. The head of the Israeli opposition, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, cannot claim she is innocent just because she is sitting on the sidelines. It is her refusal to join the government - against the wishes of many in her party - which has forced Netanyahu into an unstable, right-wing government, resulting in the current mess.

Following the election in February 2009, Livni's party won the most seats - 28 - but remained unable to cobble together a coalition and so Netanyahu's Likud, with 27 seats, was given the chance instead. Netanyahu made it clear that his preference was to form a government with the centre-left Kadima party. He made Livni a more-than-generous offer. This included "full partnership" in establishing the direction of the new government, an equal number of government portfolios as the Likud, and two out of the three top Cabinet positions (Defence, Foreign Affairs, Finance). He also promised to advance the peace process with the Palestinians.

Livni, who had expressed her disdain for serving under Netanyahu, refused, unless he agreed to rotate with her as Prime Minister. The flimsy nature of her stated excuse - that she needed the Likud leader publicly to endorse the two-state solution - was exposed in June, when Netanyahu did exactly that. Rather than rejoicing that he had embraced her policy, she accused him of the "height of hypocrisy" and remained in opposition.

What, then, was really behind her refusal? Israeli analysts pointed to two possibilities. One was personal: she could not stand the thought of being number two when she had won most votes. The other was tactical: she was betting that Netanyahu's hardline government, made up of several smaller parties, would collapse quickly, paving her way to power.

Either way, the one consideration missing was the good of the country. Abandoning Netanyahu to the radicals may have been good for Kadima; but was it good for Israel?

A year on, we can see that Livni was being selfish and irresponsible. Had Kadima joined the Likud-Labour coalition, Netanyahu would have had a centrist government with international credibility. He could have pressed for progress with the Palestinians and taken bold decisions. The smaller parties - Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu - which have been able to push Netanyahu around on Jerusalem and foreign policy would have been frozen out.

Over the coming months - in new coalition negotiations or in an election campaign - Livni will doubtless try to claim that she is the only one who can save an embattled and battered Israel.

I would remind her that when Arik Sharon founded Kadima in 2005, he initially called it the "National Responsibility" party. It is a mantle she cannot reclaim now, a year after abandoning the country to the far right.

Miriam Shaviv is the JC's foreign editor

    Last updated: 10:49am, July 9 2010

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