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Israeli Elections: Do They Really Matter?

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Emma Goldman, the Russian anarchist famously quipped that if elections really changed anything, they'd be illegal.

I couldn't help think about Goldman as I contemplate the outcome of Israel's elections. This electoral moment--unlike previous election contests--has a strangely anti-climactic character. These elections came up quickly, there were no debates, they were overshadowed by events in Gaza, a global economic crisis, and possibly by an even more consequential election--Barack Obama's as America's 44th President.

My sense is that the lack of anticipation and breathless build-up to the February 10th election reflects two more important realities. The first is an Israeli leadership deficit widely acknowledged by most Israeli polls. As the founding fathers of the Israeli state part from the scene (the only two left are Sharon who lies in a coma and Shimon Peres, the animated octogenarian President of the country), Israel has been led in recent years by a younger generation of much less experienced and skilled Prime Ministers (Barak, Netanyahu, and Olmert) who have stumbled badly in matters of peace and war.

It is an arguable proposition but it is eminently fair to ask whether any Israeli leader now has the historic legitimacy, moral authority, and power to make the tough choices and overcome the challenges Israel faces on peace and security. Frankly, neither the military nor political strategies pursued by Israel in its two most recent military conflicts (Lebanon, 2006; Gaza, 2008/2009) inspire all that much confidence.

Second, despite the personal and political differences between the two leading candidates--Livni and Netanyahu, the policy approaches (given the problems Israel confronts and the narrow choices flowing from them) don't suggest all that much variance. Indeed the need to forge a stable coalition, not dependent on smaller or larger right-wing parties may well push in the direction of a more centrist unity government based on consensus.

On Iran, regardless of who wins, the next Israeli Prime Minister will make stopping Tehran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon his or her top priority. Netanyahu may be more suspicious of diplomacy, but both candidates will first support sanctions and contacts (orchestrated by Washington) as necessary steps in trying to block Iran. When and if that approach fails, the next Prime Minister will consider military action. And President Obama will find a determined and forceful Israeli approach on Iran, pressing America to either acquiesce, support, or help participate in a military attack.

On the peace process, there's no doubt that a Prime Minister Livni having invested more in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will try to ply those waters once again. Netanyahu won't. But sooner or later both may come to accept that there are no conflict-ending solutions there. And so, the next Israeli Prime Minister will be drawn north towards the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian accord--a direction the Obama administration may also take.

Electing Netanyahu may mean more humps in the US-Israeli relationship, but no major rifts. In the end, regardless of who wins, Obama's domestic priorities, bad peace process options, and Israel's inherent caution are unlikely to generate--save for a possible Israeli-Iranian confrontation--any wild surprises in the US-Israeli relationship or quick, easy breakthroughs in the peace process. The fact is Israel, as well as the United States, face imperfect options in a complex, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East which are likely to produce imperfect outcomes. And whoever is elected as the next Israeli Prime Minister will have a hard time changing that.