Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

After Israel’'s elections, –where to now?

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Update from AIJAC

January 25, 2013
Number 01/13 #05

With all the ballots counted and the horse-trading beginning to see which parties will join what will almost certainly be a Netanyahu-led governing coalition, today’s update looks at what it means for the moribund peace process.

First up, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz reveals his initiative last December to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to restart peace talks. According to Dershowitz this would see the West Bank divided into three areas and once good faith talks begin, Israel would implement a freeze on settlement building but not in areas that would almost certainly be retained by Israel in a peace agreement. To read what could amount to a positive note for the resumption of substantive peace talks, CLICK HERE.

Next, veteran Jewish leader Isi Leibler argues that the fall in Likud-Beitenu support should not be seen as a vote of no-confidence in Benjamin Netanyahu'’s handling of the peace process, Israel’s relations with the United States or foreign affairs. He argues that the elections were fought on domestic issues but the next government should be a broad coalition to effect the changes required to meet Israel citizens needs while allowing Netanyahu to be firm on foreign affairs and security issues. To read this analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israeli analyst Mark Heller writes that he does not foresee any major breakthrough in the deadlocked peace process without a kick-start by US President Barack Obama. Even then, the process will have no purpose unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes a genuine commitment to resolving the conflict. To read this important piece, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • The final results of the 2013 Israeli elections can be viewed here.
  • For those who missed it, AIJAC’s Dr. Colin Rubenstein had an opinion piece on the Israeli election result published in today’s Daily Telegraph, which can be read here. An interview he gave on ABC 24 regarding the Israel election results can be viewed here.
  • Meet the Knesset’s 53 new members, including Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first female Ethiopian Jew elected to the Knesset and a profile of the new party Yesh Atid’s members.
  • The election also saw an increase in the number of women in the Knesset and a rise in Israeli-Arab turnout on election day.
  • Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in a meeting with US Senators reportedly implied that Jews control the US media and have distorted comments he made in the past about Zionists being “bloodsuckers” and “descendants of apes and pigs".
  • The Palestinians declare that they will lodge a complaint with the International Criminal Court if Israel proceeds with plans to build housing in the E1 area.
  • News on the Jordanian elections held yesterday which were largely boycotted by Islamist parties, see here and here.                      

 


 

Israeli Elections and Palestinian Negotiations

Alan M. Dershowitz
Ha'aretz, January 23, 2013

The American politician Tip O'Neill once famously observed "that all politics is local." Had O'Neill been an Israeli, he might have added: "but local politics often has international consequences." The as yet uncertain results of the Israeli election have considerable implications internationally. They suggest a movement toward the center and away from the extremes.

This, in turn, makes it more likely that the Israeli government might have more flexibility in dealing with the Palestinian Authority and in moving toward a two-state solution. There is also some suggestion that the Palestinian Authority may be prepared to soften its refusal to sit down with the Israelis until after a total settlement freeze is agreed upon.

In September I spoke to President Abbas and suggested to him a formula for restarting negotiations: He would agree to sit down and begin negotiations without Israel having frozen settlements, with the understanding that only after he began good faith negotiations, would Israel initiate a settlement freeze. The plan also contemplated a quick and rough division of the West Bank into three areas: those that would almost certainly remain part of Israel; those that would almost certainly become part of a Palestinian state; and those that are reasonably in dispute. As to the first, there would be no limitation on building; but as to the second and third, a freeze would remain in effect until final borders were agreed upon, so long as the negotiations continued in good faith.

Abbas agreed to this formulation, after conferring with Saeb Erekat. He even signed a paper that set out this plan.

We both agreed that it was unlikely that negotiations would resume until after the Israeli election. And I said that I would reraise the issue at that time. So I am.

The current combination of factors—the centrist tilt of the Israeli election, the reelection of President Obama and the recognition by the United Nations of Palestine as an observer-state—makes this a propitious time for negotiations.

Resuming negotiations would send a powerful message to President Obama that Israel does indeed know its own best interests, since resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute, with assurances of Israel's security, is clearly in Israel's best interest. Most Israelis seem to agree with that assessment, as polls and election results strongly suggest. Most Palestinians also seem to support a two-state resolution, though the poll numbers there have weakened considerably over the past months.

There are many in Israel who doubt that the Palestinian leadership is really prepared to make the kind of sacrifices that will be required to bring about a resolution, especially with regard to the so-called refugees. And there are many Palestinians who doubt that the Israeli leadership, even following the election, will be prepared to make the kind of territorial compromises necessary to bring about peace.

The only way to know for sure is to begin negotiations, with no preconditions and with open minds and open hearts.

The world must remember that it was the Palestinian leadership, under Yasser Arafat, that rejected the generous offer by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton in 2000-2001.

And the world must remember that it was the Palestinian Authority, under President Abbas, that failed to respond to the even more generous offer made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just a few years ago. If the current Palestinian leadership now refuses to sit down and negotiate in good faith, or if it refuses to accept a realistic offer from the new Israeli government, the international community—which has a notoriously short memory when it comes to Israel—will once again see who wants peace and who does not.

Nothing is likely to happen in the days to come, while Prime Minister Netanyahu tries to assemble an enduring coalition. But in the process of building such a coalition, the Prime Minister should think globally as well as locally. He should opt for a coalition that maximizes his flexibility in dealing with the Palestinian Authority. I know that Prime Minister Netanyahu very much wants to be the person who brings about peace with security between Israel and the Palestinians. In order to do so, he must work hard to construct a coalition that does not tie his hands. This will not be an easy task. Nor are the Palestinians his only international concern. Iran poses a far greater danger to Israel's security than do the Palestinians. The unraveling of the Arab Spring and the unpredictable situation in Syria pose additional challenges.

The United States and the rest of the world will be watching to see how Prime Minister Netanyahu deals with his local issues—namely constructing a viable coalition—while giving himself maximum flexibility to deal with global issues.

In the end, the Israeli people and the leaders they elect will prove to the world that Israel knows its own best interests and is in the best position to implement them. That is what democracy is all about, and Israel's recent elections display democracy at its best.

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Daunting challenges facing Netanyahu

Isi Leibler
Jerusalem Post, January 24 2013

The unexpected election results have created daunting challenges for Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Many Israelis dislike Netanyahu. He has personality deficiencies and, like every Israeli leader since Ben-Gurion, has made major mistakes.

But to his credit, over the past four years he has moved Likud to the center and achieved a national consensus. He succeeded in resisting concerted global pressures which would have undermined our security and has created an international awareness of the dangers of a nuclear Iran. He also made crucial strategic decisions that proved to be highly beneficial and undoubtedly provided greater security to the nation than his predecessors.

Nevertheless, his electoral strategies proved to be disastrous. Had he gone to the polls as initially planned and not entered into the stillborn alliance with Kadima and subsequently consummated the joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, he would today be in an infinitely better position.

Nevertheless, the extraordinary success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid may in the long-term prove to be a blessing for both Israel and Netanyahu. It may enable him to introduce highly overdue domestic reforms and to chart a balanced approach towards the Palestinians on behalf of a broad national government.

In viewing this, one must dismiss the media nonsense that the elections created an evenly balanced right – left division. Setting aside the fact that such terms are meaningless in this context, a government dependent on the support of twelve overtly anti-Zionist Arab MKs is inconceivable.

Nor has the nation moved to the right. The elimination of liberals and the success of hard-liners in the Likud primaries reflected internal party machinations rather than a genuine national shift to the right. However this cost Likud votes and Netanyahu’s subsequent efforts to compete for hard right voters may have been counterproductive.

This election was not a vote of no-confidence in Netanyahu’s handling of the peace process, relations with the United States or foreign affairs. The only parties directing the campaign against Netanyahu’s external policies were Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s Tnuah, both of which combined only obtained 12 seats.

Despite some lip service criticizing the government handling of negotiations, the major opposition parties concentrated primarily on domestic social issues. In particular, Yair Lapid’s challenge against ultra-Orthodox extremism – his call to engage them in the draft or take up gainful employment, attracted many voters.

In terms of foreign affairs, despite the massive decline of support for Likud Beiteinu, the vast majority of the electorate still prefer Netanyahu over all other candidates to retain the leadership.

A consensus prevails amongst Israelis supporting Netanyahu’s view that it is impossible to achieve peace with the Palestinians under their current leadership. Mahmoud Abbas is now perceived as a charlatan, speaking with a forked tongue and committed to ending Jewish sovereignty no less than Hamas. His comments this week of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis should not be surprising given his doctorate was premised on Holocaust denial.

However most Israelis have no wish to absorb and rule over millions of Palestinians and oppose annexing the territories or creating a bi-national state. They favor the status quo, but only until such time as a genuine peace partner emerges and a Palestinian state no longer threatens Israel’s security. Thus, in the present climate, most Israelis back Netanyahu’s unwillingness to cede further concessions and endorse his efforts to achieve interim solutions.

There is awareness that we face unprecedented global pressures and that this is a critical moment in our history. We are surrounded by adversaries dedicated to our destruction. Aside from Hamas and Hezbollah, we have chaotic Islamist regimes in Syria, Egypt and possibly Jordan. We face an existential threat from Iran which must be prevented from becoming a nuclear power.

In this environment, with the Europeans ready to impose more unrealistic demands upon us, our ties with the USA are more crucial than ever. Yet recent signals from the administration are troubling. Obama has nominated as Defense Secretary, a man with a consistent record of hostility towards Israel and opposed to any form of military action against Iran.

Obama’s offensive remarks on the eve of the election that he has a better understanding of Israel’s needs than Netanyahu represented blatant interference in a sovereign country’s domestic affairs and a display of contempt for an ally.

Should Congress provide Obama with a free hand to deal with Israel, over the next four years he could make our life extraordinarily difficult.

The US could suspend employing its veto against one-sided UN votes sanctioning Israel; there may be calls to accept the indefensible ‘49 armistice lines as borders (with swaps which the Palestinians will never agree to); requests for additional territorial concessions to the Palestinians without reciprocity; demands for a settlement freeze including within the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem; pressure to divide Jerusalem, despite the fact that even most Israeli Arabs prefer to remain under Israeli sovereignty.

However, despite Obama no longer requiring votes or support for reelection and despite his obvious dislike of Netanyahu, he cannot simply ignore or overrule the wishes of Congress.

Fortunately as of now, the US–Israel relationship remains solid and Congress is committed to retaining the alliance.

To retain our strong ties with Congress and the American people, Netanyahu must create a broad government and demonstrate that he is acting on behalf of the entire nation.  He would then have the ability to make concessions on secondary issues whilst remaining firm on those matters that can impact on Israel’s basic security requirements. He would also be able to demonstrate to the world that his policies are supported by the vast majority of Israelis and expose the falsehood of liberals seeking to depict Israel’s policies as being based on hard right influences rather than a national consensus.

The principal obstacle which could thwart this would be his inability to retain support of both Shas and Yesh Atid and also respond to popular demands that haredim participate in the draft or national service and become encouraged to work for a livelihood rather than being lifelong recipients of welfare. This will undoubtedly represent a key condition for Lapid joining the government and Shas (many of whose supporters, unlike United Torah Judaism, serve in the IDF) will be under pressure to compromise on this issue.

If Shas, Yesh Atid, Kadima and Bayit Yehudi join Likud-Beiteinu to form a coalition, Netanyahu would then preside over a stable government based on 74 MKs not subject to intimidation by any single faction.

The effervescent Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi, whose dramatic surge was also a highlight of the election, will be obliged overcome his previous confrontations with Netanyahu and control the extremists in his party.

Failure to create a broad coalition would confront Netanyahu with a nightmare situation of heading a narrow government whose policies would be subject to the veto of haredim or ideological hardliners promoting annexation and convinced that we can stand alone without the support of a superpower.
Under such circumstances no stable government could be formed. The chaos arising from this would undermine our ability to confront our adversaries and withstand global pressures.
To avert this situation, we are entitled to demand that our political representatives behave as patriotic Israelis, suspend their differences and collaborate to promote the national interest.

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Peace Process? Check the Back Burner

Mark A. Heller
New York Times, January 23, 2013

SKEPTICS like to say that the real Israeli election only begins after the votes are counted, because the electoral system makes it practically impossible for any single party to gain a majority. This week’s election confirms that pattern.

As expected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged as the leader of the largest party. However, the reduced plurality of his Likud Party (which merged with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Is Our Home) will further complicate the task of assembling a majority that can satisfy the policy preferences and personal ambitions of both his partner parties and his own base.

But whatever coalition is ultimately patched together, one thing is already clear: Israelis’ preoccupations have shifted and, perhaps in an unconscious echo of Barack Obama’s declared priorities for America, they want their leaders to focus on “nation-building at home.”

So to the question that most non-Israelis are asking — “What do the elections mean for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?” — the answer is, “Not much.”

Despite relatively impressive macroeconomic performance, Israelis have been increasingly incensed by such issues as the unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of growth, “sweetheart” wage agreements in some sectors of the public service, overcrowded hospitals, and unaffordable housing, especially for young people.

The year 2011 witnessed the largest and most sustained social protests in recent history, and in the month before the vote, news of an unexpectedly large budget deficit concentrated attention on the prospect of spending cuts and/or tax increases. A poll released just before the election showed that for 60 percent of potential voters, socioeconomic issues were the primary concern, with security second, at 19 percent, and peace a poor third, at 16 percent.

In other words, two months after a brief little war in Gaza, the prism through which much of the outside world views Israel — the conflict with the Palestinians and its possible resolution — now barely figures on the Israeli radar screen.

Only one prominent candidate, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, tried to make policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians a campaign issue, and she got very little traction. By contrast, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich strongly stressed economic and social issues and played down relations with the Palestinians; that drew some criticism from within her own ranks but did not hurt her at the ballot box (though it didn’t help that much, either).

The reason is not that Israelis are opposed to the conventional formula for peace — “Two states for two peoples” — or even merely ambivalent. Surveys have for years shown a consistent majority of between 60 and 70 percent endorsing the principle. Instead, the explanation lies in the lack of felt urgency — certainly as compared with domestic economic and social challenges and even with the temporarily dormant Iranian nuclear threat — coupled with cumulative fatigue at the futility of all previous efforts.

As a result, the next Israeli government, regardless of its precise composition, will almost certainly not undertake any major new initiative on this issue. Its leader and most of its prospective members will in any case not be inclined in this direction, and they will not be pushed by public opinion to become more proactive.

The Israeli election will not revive the moribund peace process. The only thing that might conceivably do that is a deus ex machina named Barack Obama. By clearly communicating that some positive movement is necessary to sustain the vibrancy and intimacy of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Obama can provide for Israelis the sense of urgency they do not feel.

Of course, Obama himself may no longer believe that this challenge is urgent enough to justify the diversion of time and attention from other, more pressing problems. And even if he does, his message is likely to be discounted unless he simultaneously does more to embrace Israel, as his two immediate predecessors did, and convince skeptical Israelis that he acts from an abiding concern for and true commitment to their well-being — perhaps the kind of thing that a high-profile official visit might convey.

Finally, nothing Obama does can be effective unless it fully complements an equally visible redefinition by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of the purpose of the process. For while Obama may inject an element of urgency, only Abbas can dispel the sense of pointlessness — by clearly communicating that positive movement will culminate not just in Israeli concessions on territory but also in a definitive termination of the conflict, the renunciation of any further claims, and the peaceful coexistence of two states for two peoples.

If Abbas is not inclined to move in this direction, or if his own political constraints prevent him from doing so, then the Israeli election will continue to resonate inside Israel but it will quickly fade from everyone else’s view.

Mark A. Heller is principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University, and editor of the quarterly journal, Strategic Assessment.

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