The Israeli elections — would there be an Obama effect?

It’s official — Israel will hold elections early next year, after which a new government will be formed. The discredited Ehud Olmert will remain prime minister until then.

The election figures to be a knock down, drag out battle between Kadima’s Tzipi Livni and Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister. Ehud Barak, also a former prime minister, will be the Labor candidate, but it is thought that he has no chance of winning.

Livni and Netanyahu are considered evenly matched. Livni does not appear to inspire great confidence, but Netanyahu carries considerable baggage and is far from universally trusted. Netanyahu will spin Livni’s failure to form a coalition government as proof of her lack of political acumen; she will spin it as demonstrating her ability to stand up to “extremists” — the religious parties.

Livni could receive a significant boost if Barack Obama wins our election next week. In that event, and assuming Obama plays his hand well, Obama will be in a good position to influence Israel’s election for two reasons. First, if he plays his hand well, I expect that initially Obama would be popular in Israel. Second, Israelis nonetheless wouldl harbor uncertainty about Obama’s intentions, and thus would likely bend over backwards not to alienate him.

Obama, in all likelihood, would rather deal with the inexperienced and seemingly pliable Livni than with a strident old war horse like Netanyahu. Thus, I would expect a President Obama, in one way or another, to use the strange combination of his popularity and and the dread he inspires to tilt the playing field in favor of Livni.

It’s happened before. Bill Clinton did what he could to help Shimon Peres in his successful campaign against Netanyahu in 1996. The “peace process” that Clinton and the Labor government pursued inflicted great harm on Israel. An Obama-Livni combination might well be worse.

CORRECTION: I apologize for getting the details in the last paragraph wrong. Reader P. David Hornik in Tel Aviv reminds me that Netanyahu won the 1996 election. It was in 1999, when Netanyahu ran against Barak, that Clinton dispatched James Carville and company to Israel to assist Barak. Barak prevailed and, as Hornik puts it, his “Palestinian and Lebanese policies precipitated both the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War, [and he] became what George Will called “perhaps the most calamitous leader any democracy has ever had.”

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