Israel's parties in election turmoil

October 30, 2008

Election season has kicked off in Israel this week as party leaders accused one another of racism, corruption and betrayal following Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's failure to establish a new coalition and President Shimon Peres's decision to send the country to the polls.

Ms Livni, who had been given a mandate to form a government by Mr Peres, announced on Sunday that she had failed her task after the Shas party said it would not join the new government. This was over differences in the amount of money Ms Livni was willing to allocate for child allowances, and over the future of Jerusalem.

The failure to establish a new government sends Israel to general elections likely to be held in early February. In the meantime, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will remain head of a caretaker government, under which sources said he will likely continue to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians and Syria.

Polls conducted this week by Israel's two main newspapers showed Ms Livni's Kadima Party with a surprisingly small lead over frontrunner and hard-line Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. The elections will be Israel's third vote in six years.

One poll showed Kadima with 29 Knesset seats - the same number it has now - and Likud with 26, more than double its current number in the Knesset. Another poll gave Kadima 31 seats and Likud 29.

Otniel Schneller, a member of the Knesset with Kadima, told the JC that he believed his party had a real chance at defeating the Likud in the upcoming elections.

"The polls show different results and a lot can happen economically and militarily between now and the elections," Mr Schneller said. "The main battle will be between Kadima and Likud and in the end these are the two parties that should join together whatever the outcome of the elections to lead Israel through the challenges it is currently facing."

Ms Livni went on a media drive this week, claiming that her belief in a "different type of politics" prevented her from giving in to what she called "extortion" by Shas. The Charedi party fired back and accused Ms Livni and her associates of racism against Jews of Sephardi background.

"It is interesting that they didn't call the Labour Party extortionists even though it received NIS 1.5 billion under the coalition agreement," party leader Eli Yishai said.

Defence Minister and Labour Party chairman Ehud Barak, who is trailing in the polls in third place, slammed the right-wing, which he accused of "capitalistic greed". Mr Barak also called on his main two opponents - Mr Netanyahu and Ms Livni - to agree to agree to hold an American-style debate.

Addressing the Knesset, Mr Netanyahu launched his election campaign by listing his positions on some of the country's most sensitive issues - Iran, the Palestinians, and the future of the Golan Heights.

Under his leadership, Mr Netanyahu said, Israel will retain defensible borders and hold on to the Golan Heights. He also said that Jerusalem would remain undivided, and that if elected prime minister he would ensure that Iran was not allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Last updated: 5:53pm, October 30 2008