The Israeli Election and the Peace Process
Perhaps George Mitchell, named two weeks ago to lead the Obama Administration’s effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians should put his travel plans on hold. Depending on what coalition emerges from the typically ambiguous outcome of the Israeli elections this past weekend, there may or may not be any peace process to negotiate. Right now, the prospects are not looking good for those who wish to see a long-term settlement.
Israelis, of course, are of two diametrically and irreconcilably different feelings about the peace process. Some believe that the process is largely illusory and that Israel should concentate on its physical security at all costs and should thus not negotiate an agreement with Palsetinians they do not trust. The lightning rod of this concern is disdain for the so-called two-state solution (a separate Israel and Palestine) except on territorial grounds the Palsetinians find unacceptable. The symbol of this position is advocacy, even expansion, of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The Israeli parties most attached to this position are Benyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahou’s Likud and, more recently, Avizdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Right now, they seem to hold the balance of power in terms of forming a new coalition government to rule the country.
The other position is that Israel cannot know true security until it reaches some permanant accord with the Palestinians. The only basis for such a peace is the two-state solution, and the negotiating problem is crafting two states the territory of which is acceptable to all. The lightning rod, once again, is the settlements: the Paelstinians will not accept any Palestine that does not include rolling back substantially the settlements, probably including a land swap in which the Israelis cede land to Palestine to compensate for settlement territory that Israel keeps. This position, of course, is anathema to the settlers and their supporters. It is a position associated with moderate to left political parties in Israel, notably Tzipi Livni’s Kadima and Ehud Barak’s Labor parties. Unless these two can form a coalition with some small parties of the right, which is illogical on the settlements question, they will not prevail and Netanyahou will become Israel’s prime minister once again (he held the position in the 1990s).
In terms of the pace process, the possible outcomes are stark. If Netanyahou and the political right prevail and form a government, there is no basis for a peace process. Netanyahou has long been a champion of “greater Israel” (an expansionist Israel incorporating more of the West Bank ), and Lieberman favors a loyalty oath for all Israelis–including Muslims–to the Jewish state, and has his political support base among former Soviet Jews (he is a Moldovan immigrant)and settlers, an overlapping pair of groups. If they prevail, the two-state solution is out the window, probably forever, and there is no basis for negotiations. George Mitchell can stay home, and the Obama administration will have suffered a major rebuff from its Israeli “allies.” If Livnibecomes prime minister, there is a Palestinian state to be discussed and negotating its nature and extent,the prime purpose of the Mitchell effort, can at least be carried on.
There is a third possibility, and that is the formation of a grand coalition party that includes Likud, Kadima, and Labor as its core. This government would be divided on the settlements question and thus probably indecisive enough to allow negotiations to go forward if not necessarily to succeed.
How should the United States react to these developments? It depends on how the Obama administration sees its role in dealing with Israel and its neighbors. The Bush administration saw itself primarily as the guardian of Israel and accepted with very little question however Israel sought to conduct its relations in the region. That position, of course, meant no progress toward peace, since the Palestinians and their supporters viewed the United States, not without reason, as the essential lackeys of the Israelis. Supporting Netanyahou would continue that position. The other position the administration can take is that peace–that includes a stable Israel–is the major U.S. interest. That position, of course, flies in the face of a Netanyahou victory and potentially puts the United States at direct odds with the Israelis. Clearly the pursuit of peace is the Obama administration’s preference, and if the Israelis form a government opposed to it, that would be a direct snub of the United States.
This issue will not simply go away. Particularly if Netanyahou is victorious, the Palestinians and their supporters are likely to react strongly, including violently. What do they have to lose? That, in turn, will seem to vindicate the Israelis’ distrust of the Palestinians and strengthen the hands of those who would like to take yet more draconian measures against the Palestinians. In the process, the door is likely to slam shut on any possibility of a two-state solution.
Is this analysis too pessimistic? Maybe, but it looks like the outcome of the Israeli election could define the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations and potentially U.S.-Israeli relations as well. If there is one piece of advice to be offered to George Mitchell, it is probably that he shouldn’t pack his bags quite yet.