Australia/Israel Review


Editorial: After the Ballot, the Hard Part

Jan 23, 2013 | Colin Rubenstein

Colin Rubenstein

The ballots have been counted for Israel’s 19th Knesset, and Israelis have demonstrated once again why the Middle East’s first genuine democracy is still the most mature and successful – a country where every citizen, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion or political persuasion has an equal opportunity to decide the nation’s future.

It bears noting that in a region where women must constantly struggle for their rights, Israel now boasts no fewer than three high-profile political parties led by women.

However on January 23, the hard part of the election process began – the negotiation process to decide which parties comprise the next government coalition.
For the Israeli Prime Minister, the decisions that must now be weighed are difficult ones.

After spending most of their campaigns vowing to refuse to cooperate with a government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni changed their tune just before the election, joining Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid in calling for a post-election national unity government to keep the country on an even, mainstream keel.

While such a unity government is always difficult to achieve, there is a great deal of support, especially among centrist voters, for this option.

It is likely that the Prime Minister will thoroughly explore this possibility first, seeking as much common ground among the major Zionist parties as possible in order to form the broadest based government available. Such a government would facilitate efforts to tweak the economy to continue Israel’s entrepreneurial success story while making life more affordable for the middle class, and also provide a united front as the red line approaches for Iran to confront the choice to either yield to international sanctions and end its illegal nuclear weapons program or face a possible military strike.

Such a move to the centre would surprise many pundits who have been quick to suggest that Israel is lurching to the right.

In fact, this election actually saw little change in the right-left split in Israel, with the two overall ideological blocs coming out with roughly the same number of seats as four years ago. Moreover, in terms of Israel-Palestinian issues, the Israeli political spectrum is actually much more dovish than it was 20 or 15 or even 10 years ago.

All of Israel’s traditional major political parties support a two-state outcome with the Palestinians – Netanyahu re-affirmed this during the campaign, as did also ostensibly hawkish former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Before 1993, no major Israeli party did so.

And for all the talk by commentators about the implications of the relatively strong polling for the Jewish Home (Habayit HaYehudi) party – which has opposed a Palestinian State – little attention has been paid to other polls showing that most support for Jewish Home had come in spite of the party’s views on the peace process. Polls show Israelis continue to overwhelmingly desire a secure peace agreement with the Palestinians leading to a genuine two-state outcome, even while recognising that, regrettably, the Palestinians are not yet ready for such a compromise.

Yet this narrative – that Israel is becoming more right-wing – has unfortunately gained traction even among Australian government leaders. This, in turn, seems to have coloured attitudes towards the outgoing Israeli government and risks doing so towards the incoming government as well.

And so we have heard an increasing number of disappointing statements of late, such as the AUKMIN 2013 Communiqué by Foreign Minister Bob Carr and British Foreign Secretary William Hague on January 18. These have made peacemaking more challenging though their disproportionate focus on the issue of Israel’s West Bank settlements, while downplaying or even pandering to harmful Palestinian actions, such as the unilateral upgrade of status at the United Nations – a clear violation of signed agreements with Israel. Even Carr and Hague’s welcome call for the parties to return to negotiations without preconditions failed to acknowledge that it is the Palestinians who are refusing, despite repeated Israeli pleas to do so.

Carr’s preoccupation with the settlements, including his flawed contention that settlements are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), is as misguided as it is counterproductive to bringing the Palestinians back to the peace table. As former diplomat and international law expert Alan Baker notes, the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) applies only to the sovereign territory of signatories, and thus is not considered applicable to the West Bank, as the Kingdom of Jordan was never the legal sovereign before 1967, and in any event has since renounced any claims.

Australian leaders should also take care not to exaggerate the effects any potential Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would have on Islamist extremism, a global scourge which developed independently of anything occurring in Israel.

Indeed, whatever the composition of the next Israeli government, the one certainty is that it will largely continue the policies of its predecessors and pursue peace with all of its neighbours – Israeli polling makes it clear it would be political suicide to do anything else.

For Israel’s ally Australia, which observes Israel’s coalition building process from afar with keen interest especially since taking its temporary seat at the United Nations Security Council in January, the path forward with Jerusalem should be clear, even if the composition of the next Israeli government remains murky.

Tomorrow, just as today, Australia will share with Israel the grave sense of urgency to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Tomorrow, as today, Australia will support Israel in its quest for a secure peace with all of its neighbours.

Therefore, Australia, especially as part of our new role on the UN Security Council, should seek to apply real pressure upon the Palestinian Authority to return to peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions and in good faith towards pursuing an outcome that would see a secure Israel living side by side with an independent Palestinian state.

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