The Obama administration wanted a decisive Kadima victory, putting Tzipi Livni at the helm of Israel’s next coalition. But just as Israelis want the next government to be a unity one, so the nascent US administration, patiently waiting for its Israeli partner, feels that such an outcome would be tolerable.
The Obama team have learned from the experience of past administrations, and they know that a narrow Israeli coalition — even one consisting of centre-left parties — is not a good recipe for peace process progress. The old saying according to which the Left can wage war and the Right can wage peace — that is, because it eliminates opposition: the Right will always support the war and the Left will support the peace — is generally understood in Washington.
Thus, Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — no fan of Binyamin Netanyahu’s — can see the benefit of having Likud in power. Likud will be the party making concessions. If Netanyahu decides that the Golan Heights should be traded for peace with Syria, the opposition will be relatively weak. Obama — and most Israelis –— remember that Ariel Sharon was the only Israeli Prime Minister able to evacuate settlements. They hope for a second round, with Netanyahu at the top.
But this can only happen if Netanyahu has a unity government behind him. That’s why the US administration will see such a development positively, like most Israelis. They might even get what they want. But all depends on how desperate Netanyahu will be in his quest to be more than just the leader of the right-wing camp — again. And it depends on the ability of Kadima’s Tzipi Livni to swallow the pride of an election-night winner and serve under Netanyahu. Labour’s Ehud Barak is probably a lost cause. With the meagre achievement of this party, the Labour leader is hardly in control of his own MKs. He might be able to keep his seat, but forcing the party to join the coalition doesn’t seem to be in his power.
Why Israelis need a unity government is another matter. It will play an important role in, for example, protecting Netanyahu from world ire if the peace process fails to move forward — which is likely. If this happens when Netanyahu has a right-wing hard-headed coalition, then Israel will be blamed. If, on the other hand, Tzipi Livni will be the one communicating Israel’s decisions to the world, the result might be a little better.
The key, most people assume, is in the hands of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman. But he is far from the only one. The first door will be opened by a key whose holder is President Shimon Peres — and he has shown in the past that he doesn’t see himself as a ceremonial office holder. He will want to have some impact.
Peres might decide to push for unity, understanding that this will enhance his popularity with the public. Or he might decide to help the party he likes better — namely Kadima. He can make it easier for Netanyahu or make it harder for him.
Peres will not be able to change the votes, but assuming that there is a real advantage to being the first candidate to be offered the job, he can give Livni a chance.
The agenda of the new government cannot be determined before it is formed. For a right-wing government, a clash over settlement policy will be almost unavoidable. But a unity government can seriously test the Syrian peace track, whereas a rightist coalition might collapse if it does.
And a unity government will find it far easier to conduct its relations with the Obama administration.