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Israeli Paralysis Calls for Arab Action

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Some elections serve as clarifying moments in a nation's history, others resolve little and serve only as a reflection of internal division. The former provide direction, the latter create paralysis.

The recently completed Israeli elections and ongoing deliberations over how to the shape of the next government serve to demonstrate the profound divisions that exist in Israel and the dysfunctional state of its political system.

As is widely known, the current governing coalition lost its mandate. The lead party, Kadima led by Tzipi Livni, a centrist configuration (by Israeli calculations), was comprised of an amalgam of individuals spun-off from Likud and Labor. They declined from 29 to 28 seats. Kadima's coalition partner, Labor, dropped from 19 seats to 13. And Meretz, a more leftist party (not in the coalition but supportive of peace efforts), lost support, going from 5 to a mere 3 seats.

This gives the Zionist center-left a total of 44 seats - far short of the 61 needed to form a government. But this is only part of the story. Post-election analysis suggests that while Kadima was initially seen as Likud-lite (after all, its founder was Ariel Sharon), it was viewed by voters in this election as a horse of a different color. It is estimated that about 70% of the last-minute support garnered by Livni's grouping came from Labor and Meretz voters hoping to block a Netanyahu victory. All this may be academic, but is still useful in order to understand the constraints that this will impose on Livni and the strong push that will be made to merge Kadima and Labor as an opposition bloc.

The right won, to be sure, but not without complications of their own. Netanyahu's Likud won 27 seats, with some of his party's most extreme members in leadership roles. Next in line was Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party with 15 seats. Lieberman, a former Likudnik, launched Yisrael Beiteinu to exploit the resentments of Israel's sizable Russian immigrant community. Shas, a religious party of Sephardic Jews garnered 11 seats, followed by a number of smaller groupings representing hard-line nationalist and religious parties which will hold a combined 12 seats.

The Arab parties and Hadash - a coalition of communists and Israeli-Arab leftist groups (the communists once serving as a substitute nationalist party for Israel's Arabs) garnered 11 seats.

Israel's problem is both political and demographic. The "Jewish State" isn't just Jewish, nor is it in agreement on what it means to be Jewish, with deep divisions between the ultra-orthodox and the nationalists. And demographically speaking, with 20% Arabs, 20% Russians, and 20% Orthodox, you have the makings of a dysfunctional brew.

So Netanyahu won, but what exactly did he win? And how does he govern, given the difficult choices he must face in forming a coalition.

Since right-wing parties hold 65 seats, it might appear easy to cobble together a government of the like-minded. But the religious-secular divide is deep and, at times, ugly. The orthodox will make demands for special consideration by the state that Lieberman and other ultra-nationalists will reject.

At the same time, Netanyahu, though a hard-line nationalist, is a savvy (some say dissembling) political leader, keenly aware of Israel's international standing and image. He knows that the Obama administration has committed itself, as George Mitchell has recently noted, not to a "process," but to the realization of a two-state solution, and so will not countenance obstructionist behavior. Nor will the European Union. Netanyahu, therefore, might prefer a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu and Kadima - choosing the latter for political cover in much the same manner that Ariel Sharon used Shimon Peres. Such a coalition would do little and be, itself, dysfunctional (though for different reasons) than the coalition of the right.

No matter how you add it up, the numbers aren't going to yield either a majority for a clear direction, or peace.

All of this should move the Arabs to act. Instead of accepting this Israeli paralysis and dysfunctionality as a justification for their own, Arab leadership can seize the high ground and establish themselves as the partners for peace, pushing Israel and the U.S. to make the next moves.

Given Mitchell's recent indication that the Obama administration would, unlike its predecessor, work with a Palestinian government of national unity, efforts must be made to move in that direction. Hamas' leadership should be pressed (and shamed) into joining such a unity effort on its well-known terms -- forswearing violence and accepting agreements already entered into by the Palestinian Authority.

Such an agreement would put Netanyahu on a difficult course with Washington over such issues as: ending the blockade of Gaza, stopping West Bank settlement expansion and land confiscations, and being asked to make the same commitments to honor past agreements and forswear violence, while entering into good-faith negotiations on "land for peace."

Given Netanyahu's penchant for attempting to change the debate, as in the 90s he worked to shift the discussion. It was from "land for peace" to "security and combating incitement." Now he intends to substitute "economic growth" for making peace. He will want to obfuscate and stall Mitchell's efforts -- complaining of his own government's paralysis. And under cover of this obfuscation, he will continue to take unilateral measures that will solidify Israeli control over Palestinian lands and lives.

This is a moment Arabs can seize, and an opportunity to take control of the debate. This opportunity should not be missed.