AIJAC Guest Dr. Jonathan Spyer speaking to Fran Kelly on ABC “Radio National”

Israeli prime minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu could complete the final make-up of his new government by tomorrow. Questions are being asked about the prospects for peace under a new government, and how well they are likely to mesh with the agenda of the Obama administration.

Dr Jonathan Spyer

Senior research fellow at the Center for Global Research in International Affairs, Israel

18 March 2009


Fran Kelly: Israeli Prime Minister-Elect Benjamin Netanyahu and his efforts to conclude the final makeup of his new government could still be some way off. And so far, he’s chosen Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister and Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Israel Beiteinu party as his first coalition partner. And the door still remains open for the Kadima party, led by Tzipi Livni, to enter the coalition. But whatever the mix, what are the prospects for peace under a new government? And will the agenda of the new Israeli government mesh with those of the Obama Administration, which wants a two-state solution?

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Global Research in International Affairs, based in Israel. He’s also worked with the Israeli government’s press office, and has worked as a special advisor on international affairs to several Israeli cabinet ministers. He’s currently in Australia as a guest of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Jonathan, welcome to Breakfast.

Jonathan Spyer: Thanks, good morning.

FK: Jonathan, give us a sense of what the final Israeli government might look like. How are the negotiations going?

JS: Well, from what we’re hearing there are still contacts continuing between Likud and Kadima, that is, between Netanyahu’s party and Livni’s party. Netanyahu certainly would prefer a government to the centre-right, including Likud and Kadima. But having said that, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the result. Rather, the most likely prognosis is for Israel to have a narrow, right-wing coalition; that is Likud, Israel Beiteinu, the religious Shas party and perhaps one or two smaller lists to support him from the outside. That’s what it’s currently looking like.

FK: What about the electorate’s desire to, as you say, the electorate would prefer a centre-right party. I guess you count Kadima slightly to the left?

JS: That’s right.

FK: And Likud slightly to the right, so a centre party. How much pressure does Tzipi Livni feel to deliver to the voters what they want? After all, I think she got one extra seat in the parliament.

JS: Yeah, well, she did. The issue for Tzipi Livni was because her party won one extra seat, she feels she won the election. But the overall right-wing bloc won more than the overall left-wing bloc, so they were the ones most likely to be able to form a coalition. And therefore Netanyahu got the nod from the president to try to form a coalition. Tzipi Livni wasn’t happy about that. She insisted on her right to have rotation of the prime ministership and share the top role with Netanyahu. Netanyahu wasn’t willing to concede that, that’s why she’s probably going to keep her party outside the coalition.

FK: Do you think the voters will be happy with that?

JS: I think the voters will not necessarily be overjoyed but that Israeli voters are used to the idea that coalition shenanigans sometimes result in coalitions that are not necessarily the most intuitively obvious ones that one would imagine.

FK: And Tzipi Livni’s dreams of some kind of power sharing arrangement where she’ll rotate the prime ministership with Netanyahu not a hope, I presume?

JS: Here’s the thing; she wanted to have a kind of 50-50 deal with Netanyahu and Netanyahu we are told in the last few days began to be open to the idea of rotation but the issue would be how much time each side would get. And Netanyahu we were told wanted to have three years for himself and the remaining 15 months for Mrs. Livni. So the sense is they’ve not managed to reach a compromise and this is the key issue, and therefore it’s likely that Kadima are going to stay outside. It’s not yet certain, but that’s very much how it’s looking.

FK: And Jonathan, what’s your view of the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s foreign minister – it’s been described as potentially harmful to Israel’s international allies. What’s your view of him and his capacity to do this?

JS: Well, I think one has to get the issue of Avigdor Lieberman a little bit into perspective. First of all, Lieberman has held senior ministerial office in the past; he’s not a new or unknown quantity in that respect; he’s been transport minister, he’s been national infrastructure minister, and what we know from inside Israel is that when he has held senior cabinet office he has been considered to have been universally a responsible and mature member of cabinet. He ran, certainly, a very vociferous election campaign with some very stark demands but the sense is that once he’s inside government, he will conduct himself in a responsible manner. He’s quite different in many ways, I think, to the way he’s been portrayed internationally and also sometimes in the Israeli media. So I think we’ll have to wait and see. I would not be at all surprised if Mr. Lieberman ends up being a regular Israeli foreign minister and a lot less surprising to people than I guess some people are thinking.

FK: AS you say, he was vociferous in his views during the election campaign and that included, he’s a strong supporter of Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, which is still regarded as illegal under international law. He proposed Arab citizens within Israel sign loyalty oaths or lose their citizenship. Pretty antagonistic for a foreign minister who’s meant to be in the business of diplomacy, I think.

JS: Sure. I’m certainly not here to advocate for Mr. Lieberman’s positions, but it’s worth remembering that in actual fact he’s in favour of a two-state solution. And what has been controversial about his proposal is that he wants to be allowed to shift the borders, to allow Israel’s Arab citizens to be part of the Palestinian state, and in return, Israel would annex West Bank settlements. Now, one can agree or disagree with that idea, but it’s quite a different sort of idea to the ideas of the Israeli radical right of which Lieberman is not really a traditional member. So I think it’s important to note the accuracy of that. Also to note with the loyalty test, he wants it for all citizens. Also to remember that the government guidelines are unlikely – are extremely unlikely – to include any of those demands. So again I think one always has to have that distinction between the demands of election time and the responsibilities of government.

FK: And likely, too, to accede to his demand of the election of keeping Israel’s settlements in exchange for handing over Arab populated areas in Israel, which would presumably mean East Jerusalem would be Arab controlled.

JS: That’s right. Lieberman, and this is why he has an interesting figure – his views don’t really fit in with either the Israeli radical right or any other camp. He’s quite original in that respect. But the point is Netanyahu doesn’t hold to these positions and therefore it’s very, very unlikely that any of this will find its way into the guidelines of any Israeli government that is formed.

FK: Whatever government Israel ends up with, and that might take, I think, a week or two until we know the solution, how do you see this election playing out strategically within the region. You’ve written of the emergence of a new regional cold war.

JS: Yes, that’s correct.

FK: What do you mean, and what impact will the new government of Israel have?

JS: Well, when I talk about a new regional cold war, what I’m talking about is the rise of a radical alliance built around Iran, and Iran’s desires for regional hegemony. And what we’re seeing is sort of the emergence of a counter alliance, which finds Israel for the first time actually aligned on the same side as major Arab states, de facto, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a sort of counter alliance seeking to contain Iranian ambitions. I think the Israeli turn to the right in the elections in one circumstance was the Israeli public acknowledging that reality and realising that the kind of very great hopes for peace that people had in the 1990s are right now to some degree being put a little bit on the back burner because we’re entering into a kind of stark and difficult situation in the region of that renewed cold war. I don’t think that the formation of this or that Israeli government is going to have a massive influence on that process. I think it’s a larger, strategic process that’s opening up right now and which is going to define relations between countries in the region, probably for the upcoming decade, not necessarily years.

FK: That strategic alliance you’re talking about between Israel and Saudi Arabia and Egypt is about the containment of Iran for sure, though these three countries differ on a lot else.

JS: They differ on a lot else. Well, what we’re finding is having a common enemy tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. And so whilst on the rhetorical level the countries still have their differences and the Egyptians are still very critical of Israel. When it comes down to the real business in the region, for example the recent Gaza operation, the Egyptians kept their entries and exit to the Gaza Strip, the Rafiah crossing closed. In other words, de facto, Egypt took the side of Israel in the fight against Hamas, that is, in a fight against a Palestinian organisation. That’s quite new; it’s really quite a novel development in the region, and the answer is because states tend to follow their interests, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia have plenty to worry about in terms of Iran’s attempts to extend its influence and its power in the region. And since they have a common interest, it means that they’re going to tend to work alongside Israel on a real level, even though on a declarative level, we’re likely to still see the criticism coming.

FK: Yes, Egypt recently hosted those peace talks trying to get a peaceful solution within the Palestinian territories. It has supported talking to Hamas; Israel will not talk to Hamas. Now America says they see no reason why governments shouldn’t deal with Hamas. What’s Israel’s response to that position from America?

JS: Well, again, just in regards to the Egyptians for a moment. You know, Israel is in favour of Egypt mediating between Fatah and Hamas. Israel won’t do it itself, but Israel is in favour of Egypt doing it, because somebody has to attempt to mediate between the parties. Having said that, the chances for a Palestinian unity government are looking very slim, regardless of mediation – simply because of the stance of Hamas. I think in regards to the Americans, the core American stance remains that for Hamas to become a partner for peace. It’s not that anyone has any bigotry towards Islamic organisations or secular organisations; they have to sign up to the same international norms; that is: accepting Israel’s right to exist, denouncing terrorism – which all other organisations have to do – and until they do that, whatever anybody says on a declarative level, that organisation is not going to be able to play a constructive role in the search for peace. I think on that matter there remains an Israeli and American agreement. And also tacitly Egyptian agreement. The Egyptians will talk to Hamas, but they also acknowledge the very dangerous nature of that organisation.

FK: What about the Obama Administration’s move quite quickly on this front – planning, and already engaging in a dialogue with Syria and Iran?

JS: Well, the Obama Administration wants to have engagement and dialogue, but I think we shouldn’t assume they’re naïve in that regard. They sent a very hard nosed American diplomat, former ambassador Jeffrery Feltman, and he certainly we be gauging what the Syrians think. If the Syrians do not wish to be flexible, then I think that’s the message that Ambassador Feltman will transfer back to Washington, and I think President Obama will base his policy on that regard. So certainly Obama wants to talk, and he’s prepared to listen, and depending on what he hears, he’ll build American policy. But we shouldn’t assume that suddenly America is going to go soft on Syria and Iran. Obama wants to know what they stand for. He’s prepared to open a new leaf and then depending on what’s written on that new page by the other side, he’ll build policy.

FK: It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it – just going back to the new cold war scenario – if we have the Saudis, Egypt and Israel looking in the same direction strategically re Iran, it’s clear that Iran now has much more influence than it’s had before. It has to be listened to, doesn’t it? It has to be dealt in?

JS: Well, it depends what you mean by ‘dealt in.’ The Iranians have a radical elite currently on the rise. It’s president Ahmadinejad is likely to win elections in June – and then one relates to the reality one has. Iran currently doesn’t really want to be listened to. What Iran is doing is, Iran is supporting some very violent paramilitary and terrorist organisations throughout the region, whose business is not dialogue; whose business is intimidation and violence. And the question really, which is shared by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel is how exactly to face that down. And how exactly to promote their own interests and to avoid being intimidated by organisations which are opposed to peace. Let’s not forget that Iran is opposed to the peace process. The Iranian government is for the destruction of Israel. So, for those of us who want peace in the region, the first issue has to be in a sort of sense how to face down that agenda so that we can then get back to real dialogue and prospects for peace in the future.

FK: Jonathan Spyer, thank you very much for joining us.

JS: Thanks.