Israel’s centrist ground


Colin Rubenstein

The Australian – February 13, 2008


IN a surprising result, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party emerged from this week’s election with a narrow, one-seat lead over the Likud party led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Although the task of forming a government would traditionally go to Livni as the leader of the largest party in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, President Shimon Peres could ask Netanyahu if he determines Netanyahu has the best chance of forging a coalition. As a third option, some analysts are talking about a national unity government where the two would share the prime ministership, switching halfway through the government’s term, as happened in the mid-1980s.

Will it matter for the Arab-Israel peace process? Actually, not much.

Despite campaign rhetoric from all sides, the close result and large number of late deciders demonstrates that there is a lack of clear ideological or policy distinctions between the main parties. A wide consensus has developed in Israeli politics and public opinion on the desirability of a two-state resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli public has consistently expressed strong support for such a resolution as long as it leads to genuine peace. And most analysts agree that any Israeli prime minister, including Netanyahu, who has explicitly refused to rule out a future Palestinian state, would make such a deal if it were possible.

But as the election results also demonstrate, Israelis are increasingly disillusioned as to the feasibility of any such agreement. In the past decade, Israelis watched Palestinians respond to a far-reaching offer with a terror campaign rather than a counter-offer. Then their negotiating partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, lost control of half the future Palestinian state’s territory to a terrorist organisation irreconcilably opposed to peace (Hamas). Finally, a complete withdrawal from “occupied territory” – Gaza – has been answered by incessant rocket attacks inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

In view of this, the differences for the peace process between a government led by Netanyahu and one led by Livni would be more about perception and tactics than substance.

If Livni becomes prime minister, she will continue the negotiations with Abbas that began after the Annapolis conference in November 2007. These negotiations are aimed at achieving a so-called shelf agreement on all the final-status issues that could be implemented at a later date. But as the term implies, these negotiations acknowledge that any such agreement could not be implemented, given the present state of Palestinian politics.

For his part, Netanyahu too would continue negotiations with Abbas (much as he continued the peace process with then PA chairman Yasser Arafat when prime minister, including negotiating the 1998 Wye River agreement and overseeing the withdrawal of some settlers from the West Bank city of Hebron). However, Netanyahu would emphasise the need for Palestinian reciprocity, tying Israeli concessions to Palestinian ones. In parallel with efforts by Quartet envoy Tony Blair, he would focus on economic development in the West Bank, and law and order to improve the daily lives of Palestinians – what he has called “peace through prosperity”.

The response to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 – Hamas’s June 2007 putsch and the launching of ever-increasing rocket and mortar attacks against Israel – suggests we are not likely to see further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank under any Israeli government. Livni and Netanyahu, and others across the Israeli political spectrum, similarly agree on the need to continue isolating Hamas unless and until it agrees to recognise Israel’s right to exist, renounces violence and agrees to abide by previously signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The reality is that as long as Hamas continues to fight to destroy Israel and controls Gaza, no peace process can succeed, regardless of who is Israel’s prime minister or how much they desire peace.

It would not be surprising if the new government were to continue the indirect talks with Syria begun by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, assuming conditions were ripe. Livni is Olmert’s Foreign Minister, while Netanyahu enthusiastically pursued secret Israel-Syria talks as PM from 1996 to 1999.

The primary concern for either is likely to be the continuing threat posed by Iran. For Israel, Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are an existential threat. Calls from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others to “wipe Israel off the map”, while at the same time denying the Holocaust, must be taken seriously.

Iran backs its rhetoric with action. Its recent satellite launch used technology that can also launch ballistic missiles. And it continues to enrich uranium while stonewalling international inspectors. Meanwhile, Iran funds, trains and arms Hezbollah and Hamas, which attack Israeli civilians.

Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, its use of terrorist proxies against Israel and the continuing control of half the future Palestinian state by a group committed to Israel’s destruction are all obstacles that must be addressed if there is to be any hope of a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, was a lecturer in Middle East politics at Monash University.