Is Bibi Blinking?

The drama of creating a new Israeli government continues. Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahou has the votes to form a right-wing government of which his Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu would be the pillars surrounded by other small right-wing parties. To this point, Bibi is holding out against that option, trying instead to reach across the ideological divide to form a “unity government” that includes parties of the left. Is Bibi blinking?

One issue above all others divides the political right and left in Israel, and that is the peace process. As noted several times in this space, the major symbol of the peace process is the question of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The left (Kadima and Labor) places a high priority on progress in peace negotiations and is thus willing to negotiate on the settlements, up to and including dismantling some or all of them.The right (Likud and especially Yisrael) say they want peace, but are not willing to negotiate removal of the settlements. This is particularly true of Yisrael, many of whose supporters are settlers. Bibi, on the other hand, favors negotiations with the Palestinians based on economic development and security provisions rather than on emphasizing negotiation of a sovereign Palestinian state. There is not a lot of wiggle room between these two positions.

The approach of the Israeli right has two primary opponents. One, of course, is the Palestinians, who see the Israeli right as anti-Palestinian state and view Bibi’s negotiating stance as no more than a warmed over 1990s attempt to divert attention from the real demand for a sovereign state (which it largely is). The other opponent is the Obama administration which, as noted earlier here, believes a two-state solution to be “inevitable” (Hillary Clinton’s term). The position of the Israeli right precludes that outcome, thereby placing Bibi and the Americans on a collision course. For the Israelis, life was so much simpler when they had George Bush acting as Ariel Sharon’s poodle!

In this context, Bibi’s conciliatory stance toward the left makes sense. To cool off the Americans, he needs to reduce the apparent anti-peace position of the right, and coopting a peace-favoring left coalition partner is one way to do that. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has ruled out the possibility, sniffing that she will not provide a “fig leaf” for the anti-peace Likud-Yisrael right.

That leaves the Labor Party, which has fallen on hard times, as the candidate for the grand coalition. In the recent elections, Labor–once the largest Israeli party–fell to fourth, electing only 13 members (it placed behind Kadima, Likud, and Yisreal, in that order). Ehud Barak, its leader and a former Prime Minister, is entertaining the possibility of joining Likud as a way to regain some relevance for Labor. Under promises made public, Labor would get five cabinet portfolios, incldung the retention of defense by Barak.

Not all members of Labor accept this idea. Bibi has promised the foreign minister’s post to Lieberman, and his views are so internationally toxic that they would likely undermine any possibility of peace progress (imagine Lieberman sitting across the table from Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell!). Eitan Cabel, a Labor leader, argues that entering a coalition with the right would represent a faustian bargain that would “”spell death” for the future of Labor. This is clearly no done deal.

The wild card in all this is the Americans. Although this point was not always obvious during the Bush years, the Israelis need the Americans far worse than the other way around. During the last eight years, the Bush team acted as if it had nop choice but to accept the Israeli poisition on everything. That has clearly changed, and Bibi’s reluctance to plow ahead with a right-wing government on a collision course with his major supporter indicates he at least has some appreciation for the way things have changed.

Where is all this going? Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, has given Bibi some time to try to form a unity government, but the prospects are not that great, and the alternatives may be for him to form the right wing regime or to step aside and let the pro-peace left have a go at forming a cabinet. Stay tuned!

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