Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israel Votes

Israelis are voting today in a general election. The polls say it's going to be close between the Kadima party of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is now being led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the more right-wing Likud party of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The once-dominant centre-left Labour party, these days under the leadership of Defence Minister (and another former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak, is trailing badly and looks like finishing fourth.

The campaign has unsurprisingly been dominated by the recent conflict in Gaza. Mr Olmert, who said last year he would stand down following various sleaze allegations, ordered Israel's military into Gaza in an attempt to severely damage the Hamas regime, and end the regular firing of rockets at Israeli towns. There were lots of reasons for doing it, but one factor was undoubtedly this election. Just weeks ago, Mr Netanyahu's hardline position had him well clear in the opinion polls. Now, the tough but popular-with-many-Israelis actions of Olmert and Livni in Gaza have helped their Kadima party completely close the gap going into today's vote. It sounds overly cynical to attribute the Israeli attack on Hamas, and the civilian casualties that it caused, solely to electioneering. That's because it is overly cynical. But it's impossible to assess why Israel acted the way it did without taking into account the fact this election was coming up, and many senior figures in the Israeli government were fighting for their political lives.

It actually might not matter too much whether Ms Livni or Mr Netanyahu becomes the new Prime Minister. Either will continue Israel's tough policy towards Hamas - the Israeli people demand nothing less. But either will also have to pay close attention to the policy the new US administration decides to follow in the coming weeks and months. Regardless of the election result, the person with the greatest power to influence the Israel/Palestine question will be Barack Obama.

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