I would have liked to be a fly on the wall of the Oval Office during the protocol discussion of who President Barack Obama should congratulate over last week's election results. It would have been interesting to hear his advisers explain the Gordian knot of the outcome and learn about their justification for congratulating Obama's counterpart, Shimon Peres, who on Thursday will begin his consultations with the parties over forming the next government.
Obama was not the only one who did not understand who exactly won. Israel, too, does not know exactly. Tzipi Livni is on cloud nine despite having beat her opponent Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu by just a single Knesset seat. In her victory speech, she did not promise blood, sweat and tears, but rather delighted in herself. At the same time, even with one Knesset seat less than his rival, Netanyahu celebrated his own victory with the fiery rhetoric that is standard at such Likud events. He is convinced that all the options for putting together the next government are in his hands. But if he hews to the recent line of portraying Likud as a moderate party, then his options are no greater than Livni's.
Both of them claim victory, but that's impossible even in a boxing ring. There, the options are win, lose or draw.
Both of the two leading candidates have too much ego and not enough of a majority. Even together, both leading parties do not have the majority needed to form a government. (Kadima and Likud together have just 55 Knesset seats.) Bibi's advantage is the option of forming a government with Avigdor Lieberman and Shas. For now, Lieberman is in Minsk (or Pinsk), perhaps for business or perhaps to prepare for criminal charges.
But all that is neither here nor there. The scenario of a minority, extreme right-wing government is every Israeli leader's nightmare. It is the exact opposite of the image Bibi tried to foster in his campaign. As someone who was considered the designated liar during his term as prime minister, it will not be easy for him to maintain the new and improved self-image he created before this election.
In Livni's current situation - on the one hand celebrating victory and on the other lacking the majority needed to form a government - Ehud Olmert advised her to remain in the opposition until the next election, which presumably will be pushed up after the fall of the right. Even if Olmert's intentions were pure, that's bad advice. Livni, with all her self-confidence, is no Ariel Sharon. And in the opposition Kadima is liable to disintegrate, either because of Shaul Mofaz's camp or because of defections to Likud by MKs who don't get cabinet posts. Not to mention the damage caused to the country by a clearly right-wing leadership.
With the possibility that both Kadima and the pitiful remains of Labor will go into the opposition, more and more people are saying: You guys are saying that the right won? Show us the money, show us what you can do. How will you deal with the U.S. administration's expectations from Israel? What will you do regarding a peace agreement with the Palestinians? Accepting the right's ascendance to power is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Returning the right to the government is simply not good for the country.
When Bibi and Tzipi dissect the election results with the cold scalpel of reason, they will have no choice but to conclude that they must form a unity government that has the confidence of a majority of the Knesset. And they will have to focus first of all on three goals: continuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in accordance with the principles of Annapolis, trying to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and, above all, legislating electoral reforms as quickly as possible.
It does not matter which of them serves as prime minister first, especially if the post is rotated. Shimon Peres has a wealth of experience with complicated political and personal situations. As one tagged with the label of the country's biggest loser, with 11 electoral defeats - to Likud, Yitzhak Rabin, Bibi, Yitzhak Shamir, Amir Peretz, Moshe Katsav and so on - he knows a thing or two about identifying winners and losers.
Livni believes that the involvement of Peres, with all his experience, will be critical. If he summons both candidates for premier to a private meeting, he can bridge all the gaps and get both to realize that if they cannot comprehend that the future of one hangs on that of the other, they will find themselves hanging separately.
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