Israel’s Election and Peace Prospects/ Obama’s Mideast Team

Feb 17, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 17, 2009
Number 02/09 #06

Israeli elections typically generate a great deal of speculation about their implications for peace prospects – much of it usually poorly informed or ill-founded, unfortunately. Last week’s election was no exception. So this Update contains two pieces by genuine experts dealing with the reality, as opposed to myths, regarding peace prospects after the new Israel government is formed over coming weeks.

First up, Washington Institute analyst David Makovsky and top historian Dr. Michael Oren discuss these issues at a Washington Institute forum, with differing emphases. Makovsky looks more closely at the nuts and bolts of forming the next government, concluding that the outcome is most likely to be a Netanyahu-led coalition probably including Kadima. He points out that a final peace with the Palestinians is not likely over the next few years, but looks at various ways in which more limited progress will likely be sought. Oren looks more at the bigger picture of why Israelis have moved to the right in recent elections, but predicts a bounce back by the left in the future. For this complete forum, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Dr. Oded Eran, one of Israel’s most senior diplomats now directing Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, looks at the foreign policy platforms of the various parties in the election, and how they may affect both coalition negotiations and future peace talks. He finds little disagreement across the various parties on what is likely to be the most urgent problem for any new government, Iran’s nuclear drive, but more diversity about talks with the Palestinians and Syrians. While he sees some problems in accommodating the platforms of certain parties – especially Yisrael Beiteinu – in a governing coalition, he predicts that even if a narrow right-wing coalition is formed, there will be ample areas of diplomatic progress with the Palestinians that can be pursued short of a final peace. For Dr. Eran’s full analysis, CLICK HERE. Another good analysis of the policies and peace prospects of Israel’s next government comes from former US Ambassador to Israel, Australian-born Martin Indyk.

Finally, veteran Washington insider Steve Rosen, now at the Middle East Forum, offers a detailed analysis of the Middle East foreign policy team (listed in more detail here) of new US President Barack Obama, now that most key positions have been filled. He describes the team as “intelligent centrists with a realistic, pragmatic approach” and one that lacks anyone with a strong ideological or Arabist perspective. He says the main danger that must be guarded against with this team will be “magical thinking about the transformative potential of diplomacy”, and points especially to this danger with respect to Iran, and also concerning attempts to put forward an “American plan” for Arab-Israel peace at the moment. For Rosen’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, also cautioning against “magical thinking” with regard to the peace process with the Palestinians is well-known Washington foreign policy analyst Danielle Pletka. Plus, both President Barack Obama and members of his team have definitely confirmed what everyone should know, but some deny – Iran is working on a nuclear weapon.

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Israeli Elections Result: Implications for Middle East Peacemaking

David Makovsky and Michael Oren

PolicyWatch #1478: Special Forum Report
February 13, 2009 

On February 11, 2008, Michael Oren and David Makovsky addressed a special Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Dr. Oren, a renowned scholar of Middle Eastern military and diplomatic history, is a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Mr. Makovsky is a senior fellow and director of the Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process. Dr. Oren and Mr. Makovsky spoke about the recent parliamentary elections in Israel and the likely policies of the new Israeli government. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks.

David Makovsky

Israel is entering uncharted waters. For the first time in Israeli history, the next prime minister may not be the leader of the party that won the most Knesset seats. Although the centrist Kadima Party, led by Tzipi Livni, won the most seats, she is unlikely to cobble together the necessary sixty-one seats to form a center-left coalition. If Binyamin Netanyahu — leader of the Likud Party, which garnered the second most seats in the elections — can show President Shimon Peres that he can form a coalition and Livni cannot, then Netanyahu may become prime minister. Netanyahu’s prospects appear better because right-leaning parties have a ten-seat advantage over the left-leaning bloc. Other configurations, however, cannot be ruled out, such as a rotation agreement between Kadima and Likud for the premiership, as was the case with Labor and Likud between 1984 and 1988.

Young voters and women flocked to the polls in response to Livni’s dual message of hope and toughness. She siphoned off voters from parties to her left by convincing them that a vote for her was a vote against Netanyahu. In doing so, she brought traditional Labor Party strongholds over to Kadima. If one looks at the election results by municipality, Kadima won in cities that usually vote for Labor and even tied in the kibbutzim, which are historically and ideologically attached to Labor. Ehud Barak’s election tactics of trying to undercut Livni, rather than running on Labor’s traditional core issues such as the peace process and social issues, further weakened Labor’s position vis-a-vis Kadima. Although Barak has been a popular defense minister, support for him during this election did not materialize.

Hamas and the 2006 war in Lebanon have caused the Israeli electorate’s shift to the right. As seen by Israelis, unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have brought vulnerability rather than peace. If one looks at the election results in Ashkelon, Beersheva, and Sderot, which have borne the brunt of the rocket attacks from Gaza, over 70 percent of their residents voted for right-leaning parties. Avigdor Lieberman has been able to exploit images of Israeli Arabs waving Hamas flags to garner support for his Yisrael Beiteinu Party and its message of “No loyalty, no citizenship.” Lieberman will likely be the kingmaker in this election, and although he has said he would prefer a right-leaning government, he is keeping his options open. Had Labor done better, Netanyahu would have reached out to Barak to keep Kadima out of the coalition in the hope that Livni’s party would disintegrate. But since Netanyahu will probably want to avoid a narrow right-leaning government, he is far more likely to reach out to Livni instead.

There is speculation that a Netanyahu premiership would move forward on talks with Syria rather than with the Palestinians, because the Syrian track would not face as much resistance. He realizes, however, that the Palestinian issue cannot be ignored and has put forward the idea of an “economic peace” with the Palestinians. His aides state privately that he sees eye to eye with Quartet envoy Tony Blair about how to develop Palestinian institutions. Technological solutions that improve Palestinian life without sacrificing Israeli security exist, including use of biometrics at crossing points and tamper-proof containers for moving goods in and out of the Palestinian territories. This approach, however, will require close cooperation between the prime minister and defense minister, who officially controls the West Bank.

Regardless of who becomes prime minister, a grand peace agreement with the Palestinians is unlikely in the next few years. Creating Palestinian institutions will take time, and it may help Palestinians accept the delay if Israeli settlement expansion is curtailed. One idea is for the parties to demarcate the border between Israel and the West Bank, even though the Israel Defense Forces need to remain in the West Bank for now. Even if all the issues relating to the conflict cannot be resolved, a border demarcation would end the ambiguity over the settlements that has existed since 1967 by defining what territory will become part of Israel and what territory will become the future Palestinian state.

Michael Oren

Although people tend to look at Israeli history through a present-day prism and see political instability, this view is distorted. Israel has never had a violent transfer of power. For its first thirty years, it was led by the Labor Party and for the next thirty years, with brief exceptions, it was led by right or center-right coalitions.

Since Ariel Sharon went into a coma in January 2006, Ehud Olmert has led Kadima from disaster to disaster: the 2006 war in Lebanon, various scandals that have forced ministers to resign, and Olmert’s own corruption investigation. So how has Kadima survived? One reason is the fear of Netanyahu and the right, but primarily it is the breakdown of the Israeli left.

Leftist parties originally stood for the values of hard work, but their leaders no longer embody those values — the head of the Labor Party lives in a $4-million mansion. In addition, the Israeli public has become disenchanted with the peace process, and has come to realize that the conflict is not about 1967 but rather 1948. In other words, the conflict is not about the territory, but about Israel’s very existence. The principle of land for peace has been discredited because Israel’s disengagement from southern Lebanon and Gaza has produced rocket fire, not peace. Only the small number of Meretz supporters continue to believe that there is a Palestinian partner for peace.

The army did all it could in Gaza, and no one believes Netanyahu’s claims that had he been in charge, Operation Cast Lead would have gone on longer. The perception is that very little can be done in Gaza and the West Bank except to occasionally fight Hamas and build institutions along the lines of the Dayton mission (to train and equip Palestinian security forces).

Israel wants to avoid a clash with the United States in order to facilitate cooperation on Iran. The Iranian issue is possibly the greatest source of disagreement on international issues between the United States and Israel in recent history. Obama is inclined toward rapprochement with Iran, but Israel is highly skeptical of this approach. This skepticism is one of the few issues on which all the major players in Israel agree.

Although the left appears to have been defeated in this election, it will bounce back. Israel is a left-of-center country; it is one of the few nations whose industrialists and economic elite are leftists. Similarly, it is too early to eulogize Olmert. Although he is facing many charges, there are no indictments yet. We have not seen the last of him.

This rapporteur’s summary was prepared by Lauren Cohen, a research assistant at The Washington Institute.

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The Elections in Israel: Diplomatic Implications

Oded Eran

INSS Insight No. 93, February 12, 2009

The results of the Israeli elections to the 18th Knesset will obviously have a significant impact on the political process in the Middle East and more specifically on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian tracks. Beyond the general trends of Israeli public opinion, the configuration of the new Israeli government will be significant as to the way Israel approaches the Iranian nuclear program and the peace process. While the political platforms of the various parties are not exclusive indications nor are political parties always loyal to them, at this stage, before serious coalition negotiations start, they are the basis for analyzing coalition prospects, at least as far as these diplomatic issues are concerned.

The Iranian nuclear effort will be at the top of any Israeli government’s agenda as soon as it is sworn in. The Likud platform on this issue is straightforward: “Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons must be at the top of the next government’s priorities.” Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has been personally criticized for denying Iran is an existential threat.

Kadima’s platform calls the Iranian threat “the most significant,” saying Israel will act in any way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It emphasizes Israel will act with the international community and specifies the US as responsible for creating political and economic pressure on Iran to stop its activities.

The Labor platform approaches Likud’s and labels the Iranian threat existential, saying it will act “with all legitimate means” to isolate Iran and remove the threat.

Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party is simultaneously clear and confusing. “The aim is to prevent, by any means available, Iran’s nuclear armament, exacting a very high price and certainly a disproportionate one in case of an attack.” The contradiction and confusion is evident. The aim is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but the second part of the sentence clearly refers to a situation in which Iran has not only obtained them, but has used them. Actually, Lieberman may not necessarily insist on a clear, preventive policy on this issue as a precondition for joining the government. However, he may very well leave a government if he thinks it has been too soft in dealing with the threat.

Shas has no reference to this matter in its platform.

It is unlikely that any of the coalition’s potential partners will make the Iranian threat and Israel’s policy towards it a precondition for entering the coalition. It is, however, quite possible that at a certain point the future Israeli government would experience a crisis if it is split on the issue of an Israeli military operation against Iranian nuclear installations.

More problematic are the significant gaps by the various potential coalition partners on issues relating to the peace process with Israel’s neighbors.

Likud adamantly opposes further unilateral withdrawals such as those from southern Lebanon and Gaza. At the same time, the platform is that “Likud is ready for concessions for peace,” and the peace with Egypt was “genuine and reliable.” Likud views the Annapolis process as missing the objective. In their view, the Palestinians are not ready for an historical compromise. They rejected a compromise proposal eight years ago (Camp David? Clinton’s proposals?) and they have not become any more moderate.

Likud’s specific red lines include: Israel is responsible for the security of its citizens and its borders; no return of Palestinian refugees; and Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli rule as Israel’s capital: the worst scenario for Jerusalem is to divide Jerusalem, and only the whole of Jerusalem under Israeli rule will enable regional peace.

While the two central issues of refugees and Jerusalem are quite clear, there is very little unequivocal reference to the territorial aspect, including the settlements. In the final days of the electoral campaign, Likud leader Netanyahu expressed his opposition to concessions that will put Israel’s main airport at risk. He further said that the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley will remain under Israel’s control.

Missing also is even lip service to the principle of two states for two peoples. This is the main point in the Labor and Kadima platforms and it could become a serious stumbling block if the three parties show interest in forming a coalition. If reference to this principle is absent from the next government’s platform, this could also become a source of contention in Israel’s relations with the new US administration and the EU.

The Labor and Kadima platforms on Jerusalem are vague enough to enable them to agree, if need be, on certain concessions in the city. This is also the case with the settlements. In the context of a comprehensive agreement both Kadima and Labor call for the large settlement blocs to be included in Israel’s borders, with others to be removed.

The Shas political platform refers only to Jerusalem, saying it is not open for negotiation and division. Lieberman’s platform goes further, saying that Jerusalem is not a subject for negotiation and that the city should be linked to Ma’ale Adumin in the East and Gush Etzion in the South by more Jewish neighborhoods. Again, if the platforms are indicative of the possibility of coalition-forming and assuming the issues pertaining to the political process with the Palestinians are crucial, it will be easier to form a Likud-Shas-Israel Beitenu coalition rather than one shared by Likud-Labor-Kadima.

Slightly more ambiguous is the Israel-Syria track issue. The Likud platform avoids reference to it. Just 48 hours before the polls opened Netanyahu said “Gamla will not fall again,” referring to the ancient Jewish city on the Golan Heights that was besieged and destroyed by Rome in 68 C.E. Was Netanyahu attempting to woo right wing voters or was this an indication he will not pursue peace talks with Syria? If he brings Israel Beitenu into the coalition, it is difficult to see how peace talks can be squared with that party’s platform, which stipulates “peace for peace” (i.e., not in exchange for returned territory) with Syria, and with Labor’s platform on peace with Syria based on “territorial concessions and security arrangements.” While Netanyahu has already negotiated on a similar equation, Lieberman is diametrically opposed to negotiations with Syria and this may be unbridgeable. Kadima will be the easiest to handle as it avoids the territorial aspect, emphasizing the need “to preserve Israel’s security and its essential interests” and for Syria to end its aid to terror organizations and its relations with extremist forces. As on other issues, when it comes to Syria, Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu poses the most difficult problems for any coalition leader.

If Iran and peace processes with Syria and the Palestinians are the major security and external policy issues, then almost any configuration between Likud, Kadima, and Labor and Shas is possible. If Israel Beitenu insists on its platform as a member of a governing coalition, its potential partners could be Likud and Shas and it could pose a serious challenge to any future prime minister. Furthermore, a government aligned with Israel Beitenu and its policies may catapult Israel into a diplomatic confrontation with the new US administration and the international community. While only in Labor’s platform is there a direct reference to the Arab initiative, Kadima could also presumably accept the initiative as a reference point. The Labor party is unlikely to make a reference to the Arab initiative a precondition to joining a coalition, as Likud is unlikely to accept even any reference to it.

Given the results of the elections, it is for Likud to choose between leading an ultra-right government and sharing a more centrist government with Kadima. The first spells a potential collision with the US and the international community. The second involves giving up, at least partially, the chance of heading the government. Netanyahu, however, even as a leader of a right wing government, could prevail on his minor coalition partners and push an agenda of partial agreements. This would allow him to work with the US administration on a range of issues from bolstering the economic viability of the West Bank to increasing the area in the West Bank under complete Palestinian Authority civilian and security control.

Dr. Oded Eran is Director of the  Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University.  Previously, he had long career in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  served as Israel’s ambassador to the European Union and to Jordan, and was head of Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians (1999-2000).

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Assessing the Obama Mideast team

by Steven J. Rosen

Jerusalem Post, February 12, 2009

We now have most of the nominees for the key Mideast positions in the Obama White House and the State and Defense departments, including Puneet Talwar and Dan Shapiro at the National Security Council; George Mitchell and his deputy Fred Hof, Dennis Ross, Bill Burns and Jeffrey Feltman at the State Department; Tony Blinken in Vice President Joseph Biden’s office; and Michele Flournoy and Sandy Vershbow at Defense. It is possible to make the first assessment of where Barack Obama is going from what we know about these people.

The Left is not happy with most of Obama’s core Mideast team, with the possible exception of Mitchell. None of the people announced or reliably reported up to now is known to bring a pronounced “Arabist” perspective, nor to be a consistent critic of Israel, nor to be an apologist for Iran, Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas. There is no one with a history of participation in ideological organizations of the Left, as Sandy Berger had with Peace Now before joining the Clinton White House. Semantha Power has been appointed to the NSC’s multilateral institutions office, and has a disturbing record of stridently anti-Israel statements, but the position to which she has been appointed does not normally have a great impact on Mideast policy. For those of us who feared that an inexperienced president so enthusiastically embraced by the left wing of the Democratic Party might fill the roster with its favorites, there is scant evidence so far that our worst fears are being realized.

Instead, Obama is assembling a team of intelligent centrists with a realistic, pragmatic approach. Many of them have experience in the tough environment of the Middle East, where the use of force is sometimes required. None is starry-eyed and romantic about the Arabs. Many have extensive experience with Israel and some understanding of its strategic position.

On the other hand, nowhere on the list so far is there a true hawk either, an Elliot Abrams or a Doug Feith or a John Bolton or a Paul Wolfowitz. Fred Hof is tough on Hizbullah (“Hassan Nasrallah… and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran… If [they] come to a violent end in the current crisis you will not find me among the mourners”). Dan Shapiro was one of the authors of the 2003 Syria Accountability Act. And Jeffrey Feltman was admirably outspoken as ambassador to Lebanon.

Broadly, it is a team that represents the thinking in the center of the Democratic Party. In a situation of real duress, like an imminent Iranian breakthrough to nuclear weapons, it is not clear who among them will ring the alarm and rally the others to consider measures beyond the ordinary.

There could also be a tendency toward magical thinking about the transformative potential of diplomacy. Among those who believe most fervently that George W. Bush missed key diplomatic opportunities and failed to work with allies, there may be a tendency toward undue confidence that the problems in the Middle East will shrink steadily as Obama’s new envoys get to work. The Bush administration held more than 28 direct meetings with the Iranians and got poor results, but the Obama team remembers it as a failure to engage.

WISHFUL THINKING could be a particular problem on the issue of Iran, because the time remaining to stop its relentless drive for nuclear weapons is so short. The new administration believes it can get more cooperation on Iran from Russia and China, and induce changes in Iranian policy by putting together a package of bigger carrots and bigger sticks. What if Iran exploits America’s eagerness for diplomacy, and uses dilatory tactics to “run out the clock” during its final sprint? What if Obama’s diplomatic initiative fails, and Iran calls his bluff about nuclear weapons being “unacceptable”?

The president said, “I will do everything in my power – everything” to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but will he? If he is faced, in the end, with a stark choice between a nuclear Iran or the use of force, will the president have the strength of will necessary to overcome domestic resistance to the tougher options, including objections at the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Or will he veto, not just the use of American forces, but also Israel’s? If the United States capitulates to a nuclear Iran, and tries to fall back on deterrent threats to contain it, will these deterrent threats be credible, the issuer having just accepted something he said repeatedly would be “unacceptable”?

There are other issues that may cause stress in the US-Israel relationship. Settlements, always a sore point, take on greater importance when American diplomats believe a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians is achievable. There is little support in Israel today for relinquishing control of the West Bank, given its bitter experience after removing all soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Israelis no longer believe that territorial concessions on their part will bring peace with the Palestinians. Most believe that the real issue blocking “peace” with Hamas and its allies is Israel’s existence, not its settlements. With Hamas in firm control of Gaza and growing in strength on the West Bank, it stretches credulity to believe that the Israeli public can be persuaded to entrust its security to agreements signed with Palestinian leaders who can’t or won’t honor commitments.

THE MOOD IN THE US is quite different. The theory among many here is that George Mitchell achieved peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and now can work his magic between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if only Obama is willing to use a little “tough love” with both sides. They want more public criticism of Israel by American officials. Some of the enthusiasts in the “peace camp” are urging Obama to produce an American plan for the solution, one that by their definition would diverge from the terms Israel considers vital to its national interests, lest we are seen as “Israel’s lawyer.”

If Obama takes all this bad advice, it won’t bring peace to the Middle East, but it will bring tension between Israel and its most important ally.

The “peace camp” is also urging Obama to take a more “even-handed” approach in the Middle East. But the effect of even-handedness is not even. The Arab League has 22 members and a lot of oil; there are 56 Muslim countries in the Islamic Conference; and much of the rest of the world automatically supports Arab positions. Israel depends uniquely on its close relations with one main ally, the United States. When the US is neutral, there is a huge imbalance, and the scale automatically tilts the other way.

The new administration may also have a lower tolerance for the civilian casualties and diplomatic stresses that arise when Israel is compelled to take military action in its own defense. Even in quiet times, there is likely to be heartburn about checkpoints and other security measures necessary in the struggle against terror. Obama could cut back on US vetoes to prevent anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council.

It is too soon to know whether the new administration will make any of these or other mistakes. We had plenty of reasons to be anxious about George Bush the day he took over, influenced as he was by big oil, the Saudis and some of his father’s bad advisers. The fears many of us had about Obama during the campaign as to the people he might appoint to run Mideast policy are not being realized. Maybe the potential mistakes listed above also won’t happen.

Steven J. Rosen was AIPAC’s director of executive branch relations for 23 years. He chronicles the new administration on Obama Mideast Monitor, which is hosted at the Middle East Forum website. He is a defendant in the AIPAC case.

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