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Livni’s Balancing Act

Ehud Barak of the Israeli Labor Party has made his choice. And it was not an easy one. As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, Barak has a long-term interest in destroying the Kadima Party before it destroys Labor. But, as I also mentioned, “the politics of the day might dictate all kinds of decisions”–and this time, for Barak, it was the decision to join Tzipi Livni’s coalition:

Barak’s associates said their major achievements pertain to the defense minister’s role in the next government and to the level of control he will be exercising on key issues, including diplomatic contacts with the Syrians and Palestinians.

Whether this can be considered an achievement is a matter of debate. One might easily argue that every Defense Minister in every government has a de facto high level of control when such issues are under discussion. All Barak got was the formalization of this control. But with it, he also got his next headache: if Barak cooperates with Livni in advancing the peace process, it will be easier for his political rivals to make two arguments: 1) That Livni is as good as Barak–hence, there’s no need to elect him (and Labor), or 2) That Barak, like Livni, represents the agenda of the Left–hence, the people wanting to see a more hawkish political agenda need to vote for other parties. If Barak chooses the other way, and battles Livni over peace initiatives, he will also have a problem: Within the dovish camp he might be seen as the wrong leader, and Livni may well be the candidate of the Left when elections are called.

Having said all that, it is clear that by joining the coalition Barak did not solve any of his political problems, but rather decided to play for time. The core problem Labor now faces is this: When Kadima was formed, it was assumed that the centrist Party would make life difficult for the hawkish Likud (after all, Kadima was formed first and foremost by and for Likud’s Ariel Sharon). But with time it appears that Likud was able to maintain its identity–by staying out of the government–while Labor has become the party most closely identified with the creation of Kadima:

Labor no longer has any message that makes it unique in the public’s eyes; it has no flag to fly for voters to see. Kadima has robbed it of the rubric of security activism accompanied by diplomatic moderation, and has positioned itself as the party that favors negotiations, as opposed to Likud, which opposes the peace process. Ehud Olmert’s declarations in an interview with [the paper] Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he called for a withdrawal from all the territories, were more far-reaching than most statements made by Labor’s leaders. Labor cannot present a more left-leaning agenda.

The game now moves to another field: the one of the religious Shas Party. If Shas joins the coalition, it will face growing pressures from the Right over the real or imagined concessions the government will be making in the peace process. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu visited rabbi Ovadiya Yosef of Shas today and tried to convince him to stay out of the forming coalition. If Shas stays out, this will be a left-leaning coalition, a problem both for Livni and Barak. They do not want to be seen as the politicians of concessions without having the political cover of Shas. Is Shas goes in, Likud will go after its voters, trying to make them either restless (thus, forcing their leaders out), or abandon ship (thus, making Likud much stronger in the next round of election).

In the meantime, Shas is very insistent:

The Shas representatives told their counterparts in Kadima that the party opposes any negotiations on Jerusalem in any way, shape or form and will not sit in a government that has on its agenda diplomatic talks on Jerusalem.

This will be quite difficult to achieve in a Livni-Barak government committed to the Annapolis process. Thus, what’s true for Barak is now true for Shas. Its leaders can either stay out of the government in the hope that a new election round will be called, or play for time: Join the government now, and leave it later, when political pressures mount to an unbearable level.

Taking all these pressures and calculations into account–and whatever Shas decides to do–it’s quite easy to reach one last conclusion. The Livni government will also have one of two choices: being active politically but unstable, or playing for time, like everybody else. Livni can only survive for the next two years (as she pledges to do) by being very careful in handling the delicate peace talks. Complains from all quarters (starting with the Palestinians) are likely to follow.

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