As Israeli elections are called, Livni is assessed

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 27-Oct-08 | Author: Isabel Kershner| Source: International Herald Tribune

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Israel at a press conference following her meeting with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem Sunday.

JERUSALEM: Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister of Israel and head of the centrist Kadima Party, on Sunday officially asked President Shimon Peres to declare early elections, adding more uncertainty to her chances of becoming prime minister.

In remarks broadcast live from the presidential residence, Livni urged Peres to call the election without delay and assured him that she would win at the polls - an outcome that is by no means certain, with recent opinion surveys pointing to a likely victory for Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the right-wing opposition party, Likud.

Peres told Livni that by law he had a few days in which to consult with other party leaders before making a decision. He added that holding elections was "not a tragedy."

"The problem is always the timing and system," he said.

Elections are now likely to take place in February or March. They were originally scheduled for 2010. The last five general elections in Israel have been held before their due dates, with none of the governments completing a full four-year term.

The failure of Livni to cobble together a governing coalition means that the departing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who was forced to resign amid accusations of corruption, will probably remain in office for several more months until elections are held and a new government is formed.

Livni narrowly won an internal Kadima vote in September to replace Olmert at the party's helm. Kadima is the largest party in Parliament, but it holds only 29 of the 120 seats and needs the cooperation of several coalition partners to govern.

Although the Labor Party, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, agreed to join a Livni-led government, smaller parties that held the balance of power made far-reaching political and budgetary demands.

Livni, who has long decried the usual Israeli politicking and has a reputation for clean governance, went a long way toward meeting the demands of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party that sits in the Olmert government, for a substantial increase in child allowances. But she balked at the full increase and refused to acquiesce to another Shas condition: that the status of Jerusalem should not be broached in negotiations with the Palestinians.

"I was also prepared to pay prices for the establishment of a government, but I was not willing to trade in the economic and diplomatic future of Israel or the hope for a better future and different politics," Livni said.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a Livni associate and legislator who handled the coalition negotiations on behalf of Kadima, told Israel Radio earlier Sunday, "When Tzipi Livni realized that the choice was between blackmail and going to elections, the acting prime minister decided: enough blackmail."

He added, "We will go to quick elections, and the public will choose between irresponsibility and a responsible leadership."

Politicians and commentators were debating all day whether Livni's decision to go to Peres - more than a week before her deadline for forming a coalition was officially up - was a sign of strength and leadership or an admission of defeat.

Livni's supporters commended her for not caving in to what they saw as extortion and suggested that Shas did not negotiate in good faith because it had sewn up a better, back-room deal with leaders of Likud.

The detractors of Livni, a relative newcomer to politics, said her failure to form a government proved a lack of political savvy and experience.

In the final analysis, said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "people will interpret it according to how they felt about Livni and Kadima before."

In any case, Wolfsfeld contended, the events of the past few days would not be relevant by election time in early 2009. "In this country so many things could happen by then," he said.

Livni's failure to form a government deals a heavy blow to the peace process. As the head of Israel's negotiating team with the Palestinians, Livni - who, like Olmert, is a former rightist who defected from Likud - had made reaching an agreement on a two-state solution a high priority.

Olmert has said that as long as he remains in office, he will continue to pursue peace efforts with the Palestinians and the Syrians, who have recently engaged in indirect talks with Israel through Turkish mediators.

A transitional prime minister retains full powers under Israeli law. But analysts here say that Olmert's temporary status, together with the prospect of a new president in the United States, militates against any imminent agreements.

Also Sunday, at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Olmert promised to "show no tolerance" toward extremist Jewish settlers who physically and verbally attacked Israeli forces in the West Bank on Sunday.

Around 1:30 a.m., the Israeli police, border police and military forces evacuated an illegally built home near Hebron that housed Noam Federman, a well-known activist of the far right in the area, and his family.

In the ensuing violence one police officer was believed to have broken a leg and was taken to the hospital, two teenage girls tried to burn police vehicles, a dozen Palestinian vehicles were vandalized, and a Muslim cemetery in the area was spattered with paint, a police spokesman said.

A few of the settlers, who did not identify themselves, told the Israeli news media after the events that they would take revenge against the Israeli military for the evacuation.