What's at stake in Tuesday's election

Peter Armstrong on what is at stake in Israel's election?

At a campaign rally in Tel Aviv last week I was given a small, rather clever bumper sticker that read simply "BB Or Not To Be."

BB of course refers to hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party. He is affectionately known here by his boyhood nickname, "Bibi."

Israeli's walk past an electon poster for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press)

Still, however clichéd, the sticker raises an important question: what would a Netanyahu government look like should it be able to take power after Tuesday's election?

No less pressing, how would it interact with Israel's benefactor and main political patron, the United States?

Trusting polls is always tricky, particularly in the murky waters of Israel's notoriously erratic political sea.

But if you allow a small indulgence and consider that almost all the election surveys are predicting Bibi will carry the day Tuesday and at least be the one to try to form a new coalition government.

His ascension could pose a real dilemma for new U.S. President Barack Obama and others pushing the current plan for Mideast peace.  That is because Netanyahu has campaigned against any territorial concessions to the Palestinians — a decided break from the land-for-peace approach that has dominated negotiations in recent years.

He says that to give up Israeli territory would only invite more conflict, more attacks and more trouble.

Feeling vindicated

A former prime minister (1996-99), Netanyahu was, more recently, finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government, a post he resigned in 2005 over Sharon's decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.

At the time, Netanyahu said that move would only lead to more violence. Given the recent Gaza conflict, he feels vindicated in his prediction.

Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni talks with supporters during a campaign event in southern Israel. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

More importantly, in the wake of Israel's blistering three-week offensive in Gaza, the one and only issue in this election has been security, which has given a huge boost to Netanyahu's campaign.

At this juncture, with the margins between the main parties still close, victory could still go to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the head of the centrist Kadima party.

Livni supports a two-state solution and has acted as Israel's lead negotiator with the Palestinians. But even if she wins the election, she may not be able to form a government.

Three months ago she took over Kadima from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and was unable to cobble together a coalition of moderates to continue governing. 

For her, as well as for Netanyahu, much will depend on who finishes third on Tuesday: Defence Minister Ehud Barak's Labour party or Yisrael Beitenu, led by ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, which has been rising in the polls.

Two-state solution

Since the late 1990s, the two-state solution has been the accepted focus of almost every peace initiative in the Middle East. It was the thrust of former Democratic president Bill Clinton's Camp David plan in 2000 and is the entirety of the Annapolis peace process launched in 2007 by George W. Bush.

Under a Netanyahu government, however, the two-state solution would appear to be a non-starter.

The Likud party platform explicitly states, "The government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan River. The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent or sovereign state. Thus for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel's existence, security and national needs."

In other words, the Israeli settlements will remain (and flourish) in the West Bank. Israel's occupation will continue and a two-state solution is off the table. So, imagine for a moment the first meeting between a prime minister Netanyahu and President Obama.

"It will be very difficult to explain ourselves to the new American administration," Israeli historian and author Tom Segev said this week in an interview "It's been a very, very long time since the ideological gap between Israel and the Americans was so deep."

Knows the U.S.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman heads towards the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City just days before the Nov. 10 election. Recent polls show his party in third, having climbed past Labour. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press) ((Canadian Press))

At the same time, Netanyahu has a better understanding of the U.S. than most Israelis. He was partly raised in Philadelphia. He was educated at MIT in Boston. He also served four years as Israel's UN ambassador and speaks fluent, American-accented English.

And yet he has a long history of fractious relations with those in power in Washington. When he was prime minister in the late 1990s, he clashed with Bill Clinton and, of course, it is Clinton's wife, Hillary, who is now the U.S. secretary of state.

What's more, the Obama administration has already committed itself to the notion of a two-state solution.

In one of his first acts as president, Obama appointed veteran diplomat George Mitchell as the new U.S. envoy to the region and vowed that a two-state solution is "the solution."

"Lasting peace requires more than a long cease-fire, and that's why I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security," Obama said.

The Israeli art of compromise

So how might these opposing visions come together? Compromise, of course. One analyst I spoke with this week suggested abandoning campaign promises has become a particularly Israeli art form.

At Netanyahu's campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv, as I pondered the "BB Or Not To Be" sticker, I met a woman volunteering in the Netanyahu campaign.

Yael Adnon had spent most of her life supporting the left-wing Labour party. Now she's with Likud, convinced Netanyahu is a realist.

"In real life he'll compromise, as everyone else does in life. In real life, I trust him," she said.

Of course, even to get to that "real-life" point, Netanyahu will first need to win Tuesday's election. Then he'll have to perform the political acrobatics necessary to form a coalition government, which is a notoriously difficult task in this country.

If the current polls hold, he'll win but with less than one quarter of the 120 seats in parliament.

BB or not to be may be a question more than Likudniks are asking this time next week.