Israeli President Shimon Peres announced Oct. 27 that the country will hold early elections after Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni failed in attempts to form a coalition. Though there is now a good chance that the right-wing Likud party leader could be put back in power, the political chaos in the weeks ahead will not necessarily derail the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
At the opening of the Knesset's winter session Oct. 27, Israeli President Shimon Peres announced that Israel will hold early elections after Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni failed to cobble together a coalition. Aiming for a political comeback, Israeli right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu wasted no time in revving up his political campaign. Netanyahu's party, which is now sitting in the opposition, has long been favored in past polls. All Likud needed was for Livni's efforts to fail so the party would have an opening to come back into the government after nearly three years. The election race will undoubtedly be fierce, with two recent polls now giving Livni's Kadima party a slight lead over Likud. Netanyahu's strategy is to win back coalition allies like the ultra-orthdox Shas party by maintaining that the division of Jerusalem will not be up for negotiation (an unwavering demand by Shas that prevented the party from joining Livni's coalition). Yet while Netanyahu is maintaining a hard-line stance against the Palestinians, he has also made clear that he would continue to seek peace with Israel's surrounding Arab neighbors. This is of course a clear reference to the Israel-Syria peace negotiations. While many political commentators have assumed that a Netanyahu-led government would throw off the Israel-Syria peace talks, STRATFOR stressed a while back that this would not necessarily be the case. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, even hard-line leaders like Ariel Sharon overcame domestic dissent in pursuing policies that the Israeli leadership saw as key to the country's national security, such as the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in 2005. Peace with Syria, the containment of Hezbollah and the security of Israel's northern frontier are viewed as national security priorities among the bulk of the Israeli elite. Syria, however, would have much rather dealt with a Kadima-Labor-led coalition than with Likud, which is likely to drive a much harder bargain over the rights to the Golan Heights. Now that a new dose of uncertainty has been injected into its peace negotiations with Israel, Syria must be watched closely for any wavering in its commitment to the talks, especially after having just suffered its third major territorial violation in the past two years. The Oct. 26 U.S. air raid against alleged al Qaeda militants in Syrian territory once again shed light on Syria's vulnerability to hostile powers. Though the United States has kept quiet on the strike, the Syrians are intent on making a huge issue out of the incident, declaring Oct. 27 that they had the right to retaliate. But the Syrians talk a lot more than they act. Any form of retaliation would risk further strikes while turning more Israelis toward supporting Netanyahu's hard-line agenda. The Syrians are still quite serious about the talks with Israel. Both sides want a settlement in Lebanon — Syria for the purpose of reasserting its hegemony over Lebanon, and Israel for the purpose of containing Hezbollah and securing its northern front. The United States, however, has acted coolly to the idea, preferring not to give Syria the power it seeks in Lebanon when it does not yet have its full cooperation in stamping out militant traffic into Iraq. The air raid not only applied pressure on Syria to deliver more in its negotiations, but it also sent a reminder to Iran that the United States does not have many reservations about striking neighboring countries from Iraqi soil if they continue to send funds, weapons and fighters into Iraq. Iran, of course, poses a different and more extensive set of challenges than Syria, but the message was nonetheless heard in Tehran. The Saudis share U.S. reservations about Syria's talks with Israel, and have been funneling their own set of Sunni militant proxies into Lebanon to keep the Syrians at bay. Syria and Israel see eye-to-eye on curtailing Saudi-backed Sunni religiosity in the region, particularly concerning groups like Hamas. As a result, a new dynamic is emerging in the region — one in which an Israel-Syria bloc is rubbing up against a U.S.-Saudi bloc. This is not to say that U.S. and Israeli interests will be irreconcilable, but that at least in the shorter term, the United States and Israel will continue to struggle over the use of sticks versus carrots in attempting to bring Syria into the Arab fold.
Israel: The Coming Elections' Effects in the Region