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Israeli Elections and the Rise of the Right

The three top candidates to become Israel's new PM vied with each other to see who could be tougher -- more aggressively anti-Palestinian.

In its recent elections, Israel has witnessed the rise of the right, the extreme right and the fascist right.

The timing of the December-January Israeli assault on Gaza had everything to do with the Israeli elections. (Well, almost everything -- there was that little item of finishing the military attack before Barack Obama's inauguration.)

But now the elections are over. And while tallies are not officially finished, a few things are already clear. The two top mainstream parties, popularly known as "right" and "center," placed virtually neck-and-neck. Tzipi Livni's ostensibly centrist Kadima Party ended up in first place, one seat ahead of the officially rightist Likud bloc of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Far more significant -- for Israelis, Palestinians and U.S.-Israeli relations -- was Israeli voters' choice for third place in the Knesset (Israel's parliament) lineup.

The great victor in the election is neither Netanyahu nor Livni but, rather, Avigdor Lieberman. His racist, indeed fascist, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) Party took third place, leaving the traditionally powerful Labor Party of the once-and-wannabe-future Prime Minister Ehud Barak struggling for fourth.

Ironically, the skyrocketing popular support for Lieberman's extremism pulled enough votes away from the rightist Likud to reverse what until a few days ago appeared to be its inevitable victory, thus giving Kadima and Livni the titular first place.

Rise of Racism

Lieberman's star had been rising for a long time; his party had even won the mock elections held recently by Israeli high school students. Though coming in third, Lieberman will likely play an important kingmaker role. Even if her party wins the most votes, Livni may not become prime minister. The president can choose any party leader he believes has the best chance of putting together a governing coalition.

Given the right-wing, militaristic majority in the new Knesset -- 64 of 120 seats -- the prime minister spot may still go to Netanyahu. Lieberman may tip the balance one way or the other.

Lieberman's success is only one sign of how far to the right political opinion has moved in Israel. Kadima, the party of former Likudniks, including Ariel Sharon -- long known as the "Butcher of Beirut" for his role in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and especially the Sabra-Shatila massacre -- has in fact become a moderate, "centrist" party without changing a single tenet. Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian legislator and democracy activist, noted on the morning after the election, the vote consolidated Israel's apartheid system.

From the start of this election season, the three top candidates for prime minister vied with each other to see who could be tougher -- more militaristic, more aggressively anti-Palestinian, more eager to use force against Hamas, more willing to threaten Iran. Ironically, Likud chief Netanyahu, the farthest right of the three mainstream candidates, was the only one not directly involved in the Gaza onslaught. The other two, Livni, the current foreign minister, and Barak, the defense minister, were the major public figures claiming responsibility for the Gaza war.

The election debate never questioned the legitimacy of the Gaza assault -- the attack had overwhelming support from Israeli Jews across the political spectrum. It focused instead on the decision to end the attack three weeks after it began and how to maximize the supposed gains of the Gaza assault in the future.

Netanyahu led the charge that the government ended the war too soon and that Israel declared its unilateral cease-fire before the job was done (presumably more than 1,400 dead Palestinians weren't enough).

Livni based her campaign on the dual claims that attacking Gaza proved her toughness and that she was the best choice for prime minister because she would be U.S. President Barack Obama's best friend.

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