WHEN the seats are shared out after next week's Israeli election, the balance of power could be held by an immigrant leader who wants to rid the state of large numbers of its native citizens.Well it is a Jewish state.
This curious state of affairs has not prevented several mainstream parties from courting the support of Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman, whose anti-Arab policies have not disqualified him from twice serving as a minister.
Polls show that Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel is our home") party could win 11 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the March 28 election, thanks to growing support from Israel's 1 million recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
So when centre-left Labour became the first party to rule out a pact with 48-year-old Mr Lieberman last week, its principled stand was applauded by the liberal daily Haaretz, which noted that "until now, everyone has appeared willing to join everyone else, with the sole test being an arithmetic one".
Not quite true: there has long been another bloc in the Israeli parliament capable on paper of commanding more seats than Mr Lieberman and which — arithmetically — could have come to the rescue of more than one Jewish prime minister trying to shore up his slender majority.
But unlike Mr Lieberman and his fellow advocate of the "transfer" of ethnically inappropriate fellow citizens, the late tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's Arab parties are considered untouchable by mainstream politicians, able to sit and vote in parliament but fenced off from power calculations.
"Arab parliamentarians are never seen as a legitimate partner in a coalition," says Dr Amal Jamal, an Arab political scientist at the University of Tel Aviv. "When Arab parties vote for the government or support the government in any policy issue, immediately the right-wing parties accuse the government of being illegitimate because it relies on Arab votes."
Growing frustration at 60 years of failure to gain a toehold in government is fuelling calls for an Arab boycott of this month's poll. Combined with internal divisions and changes to the election laws, this could all but wipe out the Arab-Israeli parties in the next Knesset. Although comprising a fifth of Israel's 6 million inhabitants, Christian, Muslim and Druze Arab citizens hold only a 10th of the seats in the present Knesset. Only eight of these MPs represent Arab parties or the mixed but mainly Arab communist party Hadash.
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