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Discussing the recent elections in Israel, Paul Jay speaks to Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East
Task Force of the New America Foundation. Levy talks about the power struggle between Benjamin
“Bibi” Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni over the formation of a coalition government in the Israeli Knesset. He
says “on paper, Netanyahu has a government, Livni does not. She can’t form a majority of 61 without
some very bizarre alliances that are not inconceivable but unlikely,” adding she would have to form a
coalition with center-left parties and some of the smaller right-wing ones. The current options in Israel,
Levy says, include a narrow ultra-right religious government led by Netanyahu, a broad coalition with
Kadima, Likud, and some other religious or secular right parties, or a rotation agreement between Livni
and Netanyahu, as Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres did in 1984. Please stay tuned for segment two
of this interview, to be published on Thursday, February 19.

Story Transcript

Israel’s parties fight for power

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. Daniel Levy is joining us to talk about the recent Israeli elections. Daniel was a former Israeli negotiator, and he’s now the director of the Middle East task force for the New America Foundation. So you just got back from Israel. The various parties are fighting to put together coalitions. Who’s likely to succeed? And is it going to make that much different which one wins?

DANIEL LEVY, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: The formal process is that President Shimon Peres, the presidency, is largely a symbolic function in Israel. But the president does have the role of consulting with each of the leaders of the parties that cross the threshold to enter into the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Having taken those soundings, the president then calls on one of the party leaders to try and form a government, and now have 28 days in which to do that, with a possible 14-day extension. The president is just beginning that process now. Twelve parties made it into the 120-member Knesset, which means that the largest party is still less than a quarter of the vote. So the largest party is less than 30 seats. The largest party is the centrist party of Tzipi Livni, Kadima, one seat more than the party of Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the classic right-wing party in Israel. The total votes, the total seats in Parliament for the right-wing, ultra-right, and religious right bloc, Netanyahu and friends, so to speak, is 65. On paper, Netanyahu has a government; Tzipi Livni does not. She can’t form a majority of 61 without some very bizarre alliances that are unlikely—not inconceivable, but unlikely to come about.

JAY: Which is some of these smaller right-wing parties come over to her.

LEVY: Yes. And she’d also have to schlep something in from the center-left as well, probably, in order to be able to do that. The problem for Netanyahu is that there’s a fight within this bloc of ultra right, right, and religious right. There’s a fight between the religious right and the secular nationalist right, the party that people will probably by now have heard of Avigdor Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Homeland), has a secular national agenda, largely to serve the Russian immigrant population in Israel. For instance, civil marriage: you can’t have civil marriage in Israel right now. That directly clashes with the agenda of the orthodox/ultra-orthodox parties in Israel. For them to maintain the hold that the religious authorities have on personal status issues such as marriage is very important, so there’s a clash there. And this is causing a problem for Netanyahu. Where things stand now is options: a narrow, ultra-right, religious government under Netanyahu is still possible; a broader coalition with Kadima and Likud and some other, either religious right or secular nationalist right—or both is possible—more likely to be led by Netanyahu. Another option is a rotation: Netanyahu serves for part of the time; Livni for part of the time. Israel did it in the 1980s, two years each. And, again, the outside option is somehow Livni manages to cobble together a coalition.

JAY: Can Livni get Lieberman on board, given that there’s a lot of support on these secular issues in her own camp?

LEVY: Yes. In that respect, part of the Kadima campaign was to create a clash with Shas, with one of the orthodox parties. So there’s a commonality there between Livni and Lieberman on some of the secular social agenda.

JAY: And how much difference is there, really, on the issue of how to deal with the Palestinians and the occupation?

LEVY: On the surface of it, a great deal; in practice, you don’t see it on the ground.

JAY: ‘Cause it’s Livni, just it’s her government that she participated in just launched this war in Gaza. So yeah. Dig into this a little bit.

LEVY: Sure. The argument would be that Netanyahu/Likud have run on a platform which does not endorse Palestinian statehood, which talks about maintaining the Israeli presence in the West Bank, which talks about not withdrawing from the Golan Heights, which talks about never dividing Jerusalem, holding large parts of the territory, and has this hazy notion of an economic peace. First of all, the Palestinians will be satisfied with life under occupation, but with an improved economic situation. Ostensibly, the Kadima platform is supportive of negotiations with Syria. Livni hints at what that entails without explicitly talking about leaving the Golan, but it’s quite clear: she has said that Jerusalem will be negotiated, unlike Netanyahu. She is a strong advocate of two-state solution, of an Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank. So on the surface, on paper, significant differences. Now, in practice, yes, Livni has led a peace process with the Palestinians begun by the Bush administration at Annapolis, and they’ve discussed all the issues. However, also in practice, the government that Livni served in expanded settlements; did nothing tangible, physical to withdraw from the occupation, to ameliorate the occupation, to create two states; launched a war against the Hamas-led Gaza strip. So there’s a serious question as to whether the peace process as it’s currently configured can deliver anyway. But it may be that there’s a moment of clarity if you have the right wing in charge in Israel that really has to make choices, rather than maintaining a process of talks with the Palestinians that many people would say is simply going through the motions and doesn’t actually—where’s the beef?

JAY: Yeah. I read an article by one of the journalists—Gideon Levy, I think, is his name—that said, “Let Bibi win.” Like, “Let’s be done with it. Let’s have an honest right-wing Israeli government, rather than a pseudo-—.” Do you agree with that?

LEVY: What I do agree with is it’s difficult for a centrist government in Israel that doesn’t move an assertive agenda, that seems very comfortable with dragging its feet, it seems difficult for that kind of a government to make the tough decisions and implement them and to actually get a two-state solution. What’s clear, of course, is that if you have Netanyahu in power and there is a deal on de-occupation, on two states, Netanyahu is in a very strong position to implement that, just like Sharon was in a strong position to withdraw from Gaza. The question, of course, is: is that what Netanyahu wants? I think, for many people, let the right-wing govern. If they believe that Israel can annex the territories, can openly expand the settlements, can go to war with all its neighbors, can stay on the Golan, and yet also claim to be pursuing a peace agenda, [“a-HA-la-ma-SA-ha-lum”]—be our guests. Let’s find out what that [inaudible] Or does the right wing also understand that there’s no future for Israel in occupation? Do they understand that Israel has to get out? And will they be willing to do anything about it? The key variable here is probably not Netanyahu. It’s probably not Livni. It’s also probably not Hamas or Fatah on the Palestinian side. It’s probably what is the position of the international community, in particular what is the position of the Obama administration.

JAY: So in the next segment of our interview let’s talk about that. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Daniel Levy.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Daniel Levy Daniel Levy is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation. He serves as editor of The Middle East Channel, an online initiative of Foreign Policy Magazine and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University together with NAF’s Middle East Task Force. The site has rapidly become the premiere destination for informed online discussion of the Middle East.

During the Barak Government of 1999-2001, Levy worked in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office as special adviser and head of Jerusalem Affairs, following which Mr. Levy worked as senior policy adviser to then Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin. In this capacity he was responsible for coordinating policy on various issues including peace negotiations, civil and human rights, and the Palestinian minority in Israel. Mr. Levy was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the Israeli negotiating team to the "Oslo B"" Agreement from May to September 1995