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Shas Says No

It’s never final until Rabbi Ovadia sings. As I wrote here ten days ago, without the Shas Party (a religious party founded and advised by Ovadia Yosef), it’s very hard to see how Tzipi Livni can form a coalition–not even an unstable coalition. So at least today, when Shas declares that its decision not to join the new Israeli coalition is “final,” it’s time to start counting the days until yet another election round in three months or so.

Of course, nothing is final until it’s really final, but what’s already clear by now is that Livni was unable to achieve her goal of forming a coalition quickly, with practically no negotiation. As right in principle as she might be–Livni made a good case by way of explaining that all she wants is to continue with the same coalition based on the same agreement Olmert had with the different parties–this is Israeli politics. And in Israeli politics, being right is good, being smart is better, but understanding Shas is best.

Not that anyone really knows what Shas really wants. Maybe they were never going to join Livni, and all they were looking for was an excuse not to. Maybe their polls show them that they can gain from new elections. Maybe they didn’t like what Livni was offering. Maybe Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu was the one convincing Ovadia that this is not the coalition he’d want to join. Maybe he promised Shas more money, plain and simple, as some reports say. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman. Maybe they wanted Shaul Mofaz so bad that they can’t get over it.

Livni might still entertain some hope of forming a narrow coalition, as some people–mainly on the far left–have called for (“for the peace process’s sake”). But even with good friends on the left, life isn’t going to be easy for Livni, as Yossi Verter explains:

Sometimes friendships are political lifelines. In October 2006, after the Second Lebanon War, when Olmert was contemplating his political demise, he asked Avigdor Lieberman, head of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, for help. Lieberman joined the coalition, thereby giving Olmert oxygen for a whole year. In 2003, when Ariel Sharon formed his second government, he did not need the Arab parties for the coalition, but he summoned all Arab factions and spoke with their members, effusing his inimitable cordiality, warmth and charm.

Livni, as of yesterday, had not invited any Arab faction to meet with her. A possible narrow-based government would require significant support from the Arab parties – whom she had apparently forgotten about over the course of those 32 days. “Anyone who is counting on us next Monday [when the Knesset reconvenes] and thinks we can be taken for granted without talking to us, had better know that we will topple them in the vote,” MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List – Ta’al) said on Wednesday night.

With the looming deadline announced by Livni (Sunday will be the day for decision), it now seems that Netanyahu might get what he wished for: an early election with a good chance to become the next Israeli Prime Minister. Chance, but not certainty: Livni and some of her advisers believe she can win. Whoever wins, the next American president might have to wait a while for the opportunity to dive back into the Arab-Israeli diplomatic channel. This will be his way of discovering that nothing is over until Rabbi Ovadia sings.



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