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Tzipi Livni's snap election gambit

The head of Israel's governing Kadima party, Tzipi Livni, has given up trying to form a coalition government, putting Israel on the road to early elections. It is a failure for Ms Livni - but it could have been worse, writes the BBC's Tim Franks in Jerusalem.


Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni with Israeli President Shimon Peres, 20-10-2008
Ms Livni told President Shimon Peres she tried everything

Tzipi Livni has suffered a severe bout of political indigestion. All the reports emanating from her advisers suggest that she is fed up.

"We'll see these heroes in 90 days," was one of the quotes - referring to the smaller, would-be coalition partners, and the prospect of early elections towards the start of next year.

Her words, as reported, suggest an unusual bout of red-bloodedness from the Israeli foreign minister.

Tzipi Livni has a reputation for phlegm and understatement.

During her campaign to become the new leader of the Kadima party, she won the award for being the only politician I have come across who greeted a crowd of adoring party members with a frown and a curt nod.

The subtext was - I am a serious politician for serious times.

Up to now, the received political calculation in Israel was that it would be an utter disaster for her not to be able to stitch together a coalition.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
President Peres has three days for further consultation
If those talks fails, other MPs have three weeks to form coalition
Peres can then call election to be held within 90 days
Poll likely in late February or March

It is, certainly, a failure.

Show me a political leader who does not want to take the top job, even for a short time.

The main opposition Likud party is already pointing out that if she is not even able to negotiate successfully with smaller parties, what hope is there she will be able to cope with the enormous demands of government?

But it could have been worse. She could have carried on bargaining, all the way to the final deadline allowed to her, of next week.

There is a chance, too, that Israelis will view Tzipi Livni more generously, precisely because she did not do all she could to bring the smaller parties in.

In the end, the reported difference between what she was offering the ultra-religious party Shas in increased child welfare payments, and what Shas was demanding, was about $100m. In other words, peanuts.

Radioactive isssue

She was also reported to have exploded with indignation about Shas, and other ultra-religious parties' insistence that the status of Jerusalem not be discussed in any future negotiations with the Palestinians.

ISRAELI KNESSET SEATS
Current coalition (65 seats):
Kadima (centrist): 29
Labour (centre-left): 19
Shas (religious): 12
Pensioners*: 5

Other parties:
Likud (centre-right): 12
Yisrael Beitenu (right): 11
National Union-National Religious Party (religious): 9
United Torah Judaisim (religious): 6
Meretz (left): 5
Arab parties: 10
Pensioners*: 2
*Special interest party which split into factions

This is not to say that Ms Livni, or those around her, have suddenly decided that East Jerusalem is indeed occupied territory, and must be evacuated to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Jerusalem remains a radioactive issue as far as they are concerned, emotionally and politically.

But it is also true that whatever the future of Jerusalem is to be, to remove it from the negotiating table altogether would make any talks with the Palestinians utterly meaningless.

So now, elections.

Again, the conventional wisdom is that the big winner in all this will be Binyamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister and leader of the main opposition right-wing Likud party.

Kadima, it is said, is not a proper political party. It was set up simply as the election-winning vehicle for Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for almost three years.

And if you want to draw a diplomatic line between the major parties, then Labour, the second party in the outgoing coalition, and Kadima stand on the side of future Palestinian statehood.

Likud stands for giving the Palestinians an "entity" but not a state.

In that case, you might expect Labour and Kadima to spend the next four months smacking each other in the fight for one particular group of voters, while Likud looks contentedly on.

Atomised

All that is convincing, but far from certain. Labour has a long and proud history in governing Israel, and a big political machine behind it.

But voters may ask themselves what exactly it stands for, given that there is now this other mainstream party which espouses Palestinian statehood.

What counts for some as a disadvantage for Tzipi Livni - her inexperience, militarily and politically - may yet weigh in her favour for the many Israelis who are not filled with joy at seeing former Prime Ministers - either the Labour leader Ehud Barak, or Binyamin Netanyahu - back in office.

And Ms Livni has also played heavily on her contrast to outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, tainted by a cloud of corruption allegations.

In Israel, though, it is never enough to try to predict how well the political parties may do in the election.

You also have to guess what sort of multi-coloured, three-dimensional coalition will be gummed together as a result.

Do not - despite the blood-curdling insults that they will level at each other - discount the prospect of Labour, Likud and Kadima ending up in government together in any permutation that takes your fancy.

Israel's fractured politics reflect an atomised society. They also make guessing the flavour and longevity of governments all the more difficult.

And that, in turn, means firm predictions of conflict and diplomacy are made only by the foolish or the brave.




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