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Israel's new government: a blank peace page

The surprise formation of a new governing coalition is bad news for Israeli-Palestinian peace - unless another unlikely scenario takes hold, says Yossi Alpher.

Yossi Alpher
21 May 2012

In composing this article about the expanded governing coalition in Israel and the peace process, my initial inclination was to leave the page blank. It is painfully obvious that there will be no serious peace process between this government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

It is clear that neither Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas really wants the kind of "peace process" needed: involving direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, held in a spirit of compromise, and aimed at resolving all the final status issues separating the two sides.

Netanyahu seemingly wants to keep on settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem until the Palestinians give up and accept a truncated entity with its capital in Ramallah. Abbas learned from his negotiations with then prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 that (in Abbas's words), "the gaps were too wide" between his positions and those of Israel's most moderate leader in recent decades. Ever since, he has been casting about almost incoherently for alternate ways to proceed: United Nations recognition, reconciliation with Hamas, resignation, elections, a "non-violent" intifada. Meanwhile, the United States presidential elections that reach a climax in November 2012 have neutralised any serious third-party effort to intervene until at least the first half of 2013.

The fact that the Kadima party under Shaul Mofaz has joined Israel's governing coalition does little to alter this dangerous paradigm of stalemate. Mofaz and Netanyahu made it clear from the outset (if only by glaring omission) that Mofaz's own intriguing peace plan - for a Palestinian state with temporary borders, an Israeli initiative to remove settlers, and an international commitment to a timetable for negotiating the equivalent of the 1967 borders - is not on their agenda. Their declared priority issues are electoral reform and universal national service, though it is doubtful if under current conditions the Netanyahu-Mofaz duo can succeed in delivering them to the Israeli public before the countdown to mandatory elections in late 2013.

The formation of an expanded coalition has allowed Netanyahu to postpone elections (which he initially proposed would be held in September 2012) until this later date. There is only one conceivable way in which this postponement could seriously affect the peace process. It is admittedly highly speculative, but nevertheless worth examining.

I believe that one of the primary catalysts for Netanyahu's original suggested election date was his fear of a re-elected President Barack Obama in the United States. Netanyahu cannot forget that one of the reasons he lost the election in 1999 to Ehud Barak was the Israeli public's perception that the then US president, Bill Clinton, was angry at Netanyahu for torpedoing the peace process. For a large majority of Israelis, their leader's capacity to maintain good relations with Washington is of primary importance; a leader who fails in this capacity - Netanyahu in 1999, Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 - is punished by the electorate.

Netanyahu, according to this logic, feared that a second term for Barack Obama would, in the course of 2013, go over his head to signal to the Israeli public that its leader had lost favour in the White House because of the Palestinian issue (and possibly Iran). This would happen just as Netanyahu faced a re-election campaign of his own. Better, therefore, to renew his electoral mandate prior to the American elections, in order to withstand the anticipated presidential disfavour without having to deal with Israeli public displeasure.

Netanyahu, it appears, has now chosen to abandon any such strategy. Perhaps the "grandeur" of leading a huge coalition, humiliating Kadima by swallowing it at a bargain price, and serving out his full term was too tempting. Perhaps Netanyahu has concluded that Obama will not be re-elected, or that he might be re-elected but won't prioritise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, it is not at all certain that Washington will find a compelling reason to rejoin the hapless international effort of recent years even after the emergence of a new administration. Iran, Afghanistan-Pakistan and the fallout from the "Arab spring" all appear to rate higher among the strategic-planning priorities for 2013.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, and fear of Obama's influence on the Israeli public was never a factor for Binyamin Netanyahu. Well, there is one conceivable scenario which will reveal the truth. That is, if Obama wins the November election, if he gives vent to his accumulated frustration with Netanyahu's condescending and humiliating behaviour in the Oval Office and before Congress, and if Shaul Mofaz decides to energise Kadima, bolt the coalition and make the Palestinian issue and the US-Israel relationship the focus of the Israeli elections in 2013.

I doubt this will happen, though. Too many "ifs". Better, perhaps, to leave the page blank.

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