(Slight) Good News in the Israeli Elections: Obama Might Be Forced To Intervene

| Wed Feb. 11, 2009 1:09 PM EST

When the chief political correspondent of Ha'aretz says that the Israeli elections have produced a "big mess," you know there's trouble. And that's how Akiva Eldar put it during an interview conducted shortly after exit polls indicated that Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima party won 28 Knesset seats to the 26 won by Likud, led by hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu. (Likud ended up winning 27 seats.) You can hear the interview here.

Eldar said he was "confused" by the results, which place tipping-point power in the hands of ultra-hardliner Avigdor Lieberman's radical right/rabid nationalist party, Yisrael Belteinu, which won 15 seats. (Labor finished fourth with 13 seats.) But Eldar did note that these results had a slightly positive element, given that Netanyahu and Likud had been predicted to place first: "The good news is that Tzipi Livni [who supports negotiating toward a two-state solution]...ended up with a couple of more Knesset seats than Netanyahu. That's a big surprise." But it seems unlikely she will be able to form a government. One possible--probable?--outcome is a government dominated by Netanyahu, who will owe plenty to Lieberman and his fanatics. "The next government," Eldar noted, "will have to include the...radical right party [and] that will paralyze it." Translation: there will be no peace process.

But Eldar saw another small--make that, very small--bit of good news in that.

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An Israeli government that abandons negotiations would probably run into trouble with the Obama administration. And, Eldar added, he is "not sure how long this government will be able to survive if they will try to avoid consultation with the administration in Washington....Governments in Israel...can survive wars with the Arabs....but the Israeli public does not tolerate confrontation with the United States." That would seem to place President Barack Obama in a position of great influence.

In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a soon-to-be Knesset member from Lieberman's party, denied that a hardline government would confront trouble with Obama and essentially dared Obama to get tough on a government influenced by his party:

Livni has claimed that a right-wing government would jeopardize Israel's relations with the Obama administration. Under President Obama, the United States is expected to increase pressure on Israel for concessions...But Israel's Beiteinu voters refused to believe that Obama would respect them more if they announced from the outset their readiness to cave in. Obama wants a partner with a clear vision of what will work, and what is up for compromise and what is not. Not only is jellyfish diplomacy, which fudges a nation's vital interests, contemptible, it doesn't work.

Obama, though, will have something to say about this. (US aid to Israel: about $3 billion a year.) And how he responds to a just-say-no Israeli government will have much to do with the future prospects of that government. In the Israeli parliamentary system, governments can come and go quickly.

Yet another big challenge has been plopped on Obama's plate. But if Eldar is right, Obama does have a role in determining who's in charge in Israel. To keep his promise of an active effort to resolve the Mideast conflict, it now appears Obama will have to use that power.

UPDATE: At Wednesday's daily White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked for Obama's reaction to the Israeli elections. "Obviously," he said, "we congratulate the Israelis on another successful election." He added that the president "looks forward to working with whoever makes up that next Israeli government in the search for a lasting and durable peace."

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