Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israelis Debate Unity Government/ So do Palestinians

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Update from AIJAC

February 27, 2009
Number 02/09 #09


As readers will be aware, Israeli President Shimon Peres asked Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu to try to form a new Israeli government last weekend, on the basis that, although his party trailed Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, by one mandate, he had the support of more parliamentarians. Netanyahu has had meetings with Livni and Labor party leader Ehud Barak in the hope of forming a national unity coalition, and despite the fact that both were discouraging about the idea, says he still intends to do so. Polls show this sort of broad centrist coalition is what the majority of Israelis prefer.

First up, Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg discusses the prospects for a large centrist "grand coalition" incorporating Likud, Kadima and possibly Labor, which he personally prefers. He summarises the arguments for such a coalition, but also the arguments of Labor and Kadima leaders who oppose such a coalition and prefer to go into opposition. He also clarifies the Israeli consensus on both negotiation and settlements, as well as the often-misrepresented position of the Likud. Finally, he has some interesting things to say about controversial politician Avigdor Leiberman, who is likely to be part of any coalition. For all of it, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the unity comings and goings is journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner. Leiberman, meanwhile, has again clarified that he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, and defended some of his controversial positions.

Next up is a piece that is as important for who is saying it as for what it says. Aluf Benn, a senior political journalist at the left-leaning Haaretz, and who is clearly of the left himself and generally highly critical of the Israeli right in general and Netanyahu in particular, argues that Netanyahu deserves a chance to govern, with or without Kadima. Benn argues that Netanyahu makes a reasonable argument that his government would be better run than his previous term of office in the late 1990s, and that he is best-placed to deal with the Iranian issue and the economy, and can get along with the US Administration and make peace if the opportunity presents itself. For this argument from a previous strong critic of Netanyahu both in and out of government, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Khaled Abu Toameh, Arab affairs reporter of the Jerusalem Post, argues that although many are pushing for a Fatah-Hamas Palestinian unity government, this will benefit only Hamas, and not further peace. He strongly contends that Hamas will not soften its stance in any way to join a unity government, and therefore, such a unity government will simply both move all Palestinians in Hamas' rejectionist direction, and give the movement international legitimacy. However, he argues that the possibility of unity looks slim at the moment, with a Fatah-Hamas propaganda war currently underway. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • For those who haven't already seen it, veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler strongly urged Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to join a national unity government led by Netanyahu, a position shared by Israeli columnist Sima Kadmon.
  • Disagreeing and urging Livni to stay out of government are an editorial in Haaretz, and columnist Uri Misgav. Another columnist, Dror Nissan, takes the politically unpopular position (in Israel) that unity governments as such are a bad idea.
  • Yet another columnist, Israel Harel, argues that Netanyahu should not dilute his program to entice Kadima to join government.
  • Commenting also on the situation, more ambiguously, is top Israel columnist Yoel Marcus.
  • Israeli academic Efraim Inbar analyses why he believes the Israeli Labor party has declined so precipitously from its once dominant position in Israeli politics.
  • The cabinet secretary of the outgoing government, Oved Yehezkel, argues that, based on what he has seen in cabinet meetings and other dealings with ministers, Israelis should be less cynical about their politicians and give them a chance.
  • Australian lawyer Selwyn Freeman appears in the Los Angeles Times website, to counter some myths about Israel's relationship with its Arab minority. 


Interview: Prospects for a Centrist 'Grand Coalition' in Israel


By GERALD STEINBERG AND BERNARD GWERTZMAN

Interviewee: Gerald Steinberg, Chairman, Political Science Department, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations

February 20, 2009 (updated 26 February)

Gerald Steinberg, who has been an adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, says that with Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, being asked to form a coalition government, he believes that Netanyahu would strongly prefer "a broad, centrist-based coalition" with Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of Labor. But he says there will be tough negotiations ahead since these two have both vowed to stay out of the Likud-led coalition. Steinberg says he, too, favors such a coalition. "That is a platform of moderation, with an emphasis on economic stability and job creation as a priority; cooperative relationship with the United States, openness towards serious negotiations for peace, all of those things which are essentially compatible with the platforms of all three major parties. That would be in Israel's best interests."

In Israel Friday morning, President Shimon Peres asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, to take the lead in trying to form a new government. Netanyahu, of course, had been prime minister in the 1990s, and is regarded as a leader of the right-wing bloc. And also today, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Kadima party, who had received the most popular votes in the recent election, said she would not join the coalition, but I guess everything is up for negotiation, right?

Yes it is, as it is often the case in Israel. Both Kadima and Likud got about a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset, which means that neither of them has a strong mandate, and that's been the situation in Israel for a number of years. Whoever is asked to form a government because he or she is seen as having the greatest chance of doing so, still has to work very hard to put together a coalition of sixty-one seats, and that probably means it has to include four or five different parties, some of whom have very different platforms and objectives. It's always been difficult, and it's just gotten more difficult.

At this moment, if Netanyahu had his choice, what would his government look like, do you think?

I'm guessing that he would like to have a broad, centrist-based coalition. First of all that means he gets twenty eight seats from Kadima. With his twenty- seven, he's up to fifty-five, so he would have many choices to get the extra six or more seats. But in fact, with that kind of foundation, he might be able to get at least some of the thirteen Labor seats, and that would put him way over the seventy mark.

So he wo
uldn't even need any other right-wing parties.

He wouldn't need any other right-wing, or secular, or religious, or any other parties. If he had the three centrist parties together, that would be the strongest coalition, and most Israelis favor the stability this would provide.

Given that situation, why would Livni and also Ehud Barak, the head of the Labor party, say that they don't want to be in a coalition with him?

First of all, remember that we're going to have negotiations, and it may turn out that they will join. I think we need to wait a week or two. These can be very, very difficult negotiations. Labor's situation is this: They've got thirteen seats. That puts them in the fourth place, behind even Avigdor Lieberman's party. Labor was once Israel's largest ruling party. Many members of the party argue that going into a coalition under Netanyahu would simply mean the end of the party completely. What they need to do, they argue, is to go into the opposition, wait for Netanyahu to fail, and then come back with a new leadership, and a stronger platform going back to traditional values, particularly in the social-economic field. We're going through a major economic crisis in Israel like the rest of the world, and they argue that Labor is in the best position as Social Democrats to come back three or four years down the line to benefit from the crisis and benefit from Netanyahu's failures. That's their argument. I don't think Ehud Barak agrees with that but he's going to have a tough time convincing other members of the party that in fact it's worth joining the Netanyahu coalition.

For Livni, it's somewhat similar. She argues that Netanyahu will fail and we don't want to be part of that failure. "If we are out of it, in fact he'll fail more quickly. A right-wing government led by Netanyahu with Lieberman as a necessary part of that coalition will not be able to last very long; it will get itself into conflicts with the United States, there will be increased pressure on Israel, and the government will not be able to manage the economy." And in the next election, they argue, Kadima under Tzipi Livni will come back and will have a larger margin of victory, and will be able to form the government.

As far as Israel's overall interest, what do you think?

I strongly favor a centrist-based coalition, with the three centrist parties--Likud, Kadima, and Labor--forming a foundation, and then setting up a platform with a basic open door. That is a platform of moderation, with an emphasis on economic stability and job creation as a priority; cooperative relationship with the United States, openness towards serious negotiations for peace, all of those things which are essentially compatible with the platforms of all three major parties. That would be in Israel's best interests.

What is Likud's stand, and Netanyahu's, on negotiations with the Palestinians for a two-state solution?

There's a lot of waffling there, but essentially Netanyahu has favored two-state negotiations. I emphasize "negotiations." Whether the end of negotiations would provide the terms Netanyahu would accept is open to question. Likud itself encompasses the center-right sector of Israel's political map. Netanyahu, despite his rhetoric, has acted in a more centrist manner. Likud broke with Kadima in 2005 on the issue of unilateral disengagement [from Gaza]. Part of that was tactical. The Likud argued that it was going to fail, and they were right. There are also some lingering ideological factors, but settlements are not the central part of their platform. The remaining pro-settlement sector in Israel includes Lieberman, whose party, Yisrael Beitenu has fifteen seats, and a group of religious parties that constitute together on the order of eight or nine seats, and perhaps Shas, which has another nine seats. That would be a sizeable bloc that is to the right of Likud.

And they want to have more settlements?

Well, there's a range of views on that as well. The hardline settlement community is down to about 200,000 voters, and those are the people who turn out for demonstrations. These are also the people who vote for parties that still highlight settlements as their primary issue. But in analyses of Israeli politics, this issues has been way overemphasized. The Israeli consensus, which is about 60-70 percent of the Jewish vote plus all of the Arab voters, does not favor expanding settlements. The Jewish consensus is largely that "we keep what we have in terms of the settlement blocs," as outlined in the agreement in 2004 between then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush.

Please explain that.

In this approach, the large settlement blocs with tens of thousands of residentss, along the 1949 "Green Line" and near Jersualem, will continue to be part of Israel. An agreement with the Palestine Authority could include exchange of territory, providing an equal area to a Palestinian state.  As to the small settlements that are in the middle of large Palestinian population areas, the Israeli consensus is that we know those are like to come down at some point.

Right, and what about Jerusalem?

Jerusalem is much more contested. But there again there is an Israeli consensus that any agreements must be ones that we can have confidence in -- we will not go back to the 1949 Armistice agreements, which promised access to holy sites, but were never implemented for Jews. Unless we have some more "realistic"-- and nobody knows what that means -- terms for agreement, the Israeli security control has to be maintained, because otherwise, Jews will be attacked and squeezed out. However, there is also consensus that in terms of autonomy and self-government, the majority-Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem do not have to be considered part of the Israeli state. The core issues are security and access to holy sites. And nobody has come up with a workable plan for the idea of having a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem that also protects Israeli security rights, other than in very flowery language, which Israelis just don't take seriously because of the past experience.

So that's obviously unresolved.

It's going to be extremely difficult to resolve. I don't know any serious Israeli thinkers who expect Jerusalem to be resolved in a period of four to five years. The key factor is the Palestinian behavior on the ground, and not pledges that are made and written into agreements that are so far from the present reality that it's impossible to imagine a realistic jump from one to the other in a short period of time.

What would be wrong with a right-wing government? Who would be in a right-wing government?

The fear is obviously Lieberman. Lieberman got fifteen seats which is about 13 percent of the vote, and it's not that much larger than in previous years. He captured a few seats from Likud and a smaller parties that were considered to be too narrow or weak on these issues. In the aftermath of the Gaza war and the vicious international condemnation of Israel, Lieberman's message of talking and acting tough was attractive to some additional Israeli voters. If Lieberman is in the government, there's a question of how much is he committed to his platform and how much is opportunism, or let's say electoral rhetoric. But if he's committed to the platform, that would mean much stronger limits on negotiations with the Palestinians. Lieberman has also called for a loyalty oath for Israeli Arabs, reacting to a strong radicalization of the Israeli Arabs who've become extremists and have supported Hamas and Hezbollah directly.

Lieberman also rejects the idea that President Mahmoud Abbas and the remnants of Fatah are either interested or capable of delivering on a two-state solution. Many other Israeli leaders may privately think in fact that there's no real hope for the Fatah leadership returning to power, particularly in Gaza, able to make peace with Israel and defeat Hamas, but they go along with it because of American pressure. I don't know if [outgoing Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and Livni really thought that there was much to be gained by negotiating with the Palestinian Authority over the last year since the Annapolis conference in November 2007. But President Bush asked for it -- there was intense American pressure. And they'll go along with it because Obama will increase the pressure --  we don't want to fight with the Americans. But that's not Lieberman's position, and there are many Israelis who share his view. Most of them don't say it publicly. Lieberman says things publicly that others that think those thoughts don't say because of the political fallout.

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Bibi deserves a chance

 Aluf Benn

Haaretz, 25/02/2009

Benjamin Netanyahu deserves a chance to lead Israel on the basis of his worldview and with the coalition he forms, with or without Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak. Netanyahu is coming back to power a decade after he was toppled in elections, and not because the Israelis have fallen in love with his ideas and personality. His dream of bringing to Likud a large bloc of centrist votes, like Ariel Sharon did in 2003, did not happen. But in the 18th Knesset no coalition is possible without Likud.

Netanyahu deserves a chance because his return to power exemplifies the democratic game. There is no other candidate whose views, skills and weaknesses are better known to the public. After his 2006 defeat he did not "tend to his affairs at home." Instead, he waited, as a leader of the opposition, for the fall of Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu also excelled in political maneuvering when he cut a deal with Shas and prevented Livni from becoming prime minister after Olmert resigned.

Netanyahu deserves a chance because for years he has warned against an Iranian nuclear bomb, which he believes will pose the worst threat to Israel's existence ever. Netanyahu felt that some of his predecessors could have done more to curb the Iranian threat. Now he has been given that responsibility. He wants to convince Barack Obama that his presidency will be judged by the results of his dealings with Iran. Netanyahu will not oppose dialogue between the United States and Iran. During their meeting last summer he told Obama: "The target is more important than the method."   

In Netanyahu's opinion, Obama will try to talk with the Iranians for two to three months, and will find out - as expected - that they are toying with him. Then he will turn to a more aggressive option. The United States has many ways to strike Iran, and Obama has greater legitimacy to use force than his predecessor, who was mixed up in Iraq. From Netanyahu's point of view, dealing with Iran is the key to progress in the diplomatic process. The depth of Israel's concessions in the territories will reflect the severity of the blow against Iran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu deserves a chance because he is convinced that he will work well with Obama, and even with Hillary Clinton. Netanyahu knows that Obama will ask him about his position on a two-state solution, and believes he can find a formula that will satisfy the president. But Netanyahu believes in reciprocity in foreign affairs and thinks there should be no give without take, not even among friends. He will ask Obama to evaluate him on the basis of his actions on the ground, instead of wasting time in ideological debates and humiliating him publicly for opposing peace. Netanyahu will argue that a Palestinian state is not currently on the agenda, and if a reliable Palestinian partner emerges, Likud has greater chances of reaching a lasting agreement with him than the left. Public pressure on Israel will achieve nothing and will only bolster a right-wing coalition behind Netanyahu that will oppose any concession.

On the same principle of reciprocity, Obama will also want something from Israel; it appears this will come in the form of a demand, more adamant than ever, for a freeze on settlements, including "natural growth," that Netanyahu promised during his election campaign. Such a demand will create a serious problem for a right-wing coalition dependent on settler parties. Here, too, Netanyahu will try the "quiet in return for action" method with Obama: Don't force me to turn my back on my ideological base and political partners, and trust me that conditions on the ground will improve. In any case, he will tell Obama, you have no better alternative.

Netanyahu deserves a chance because his authority and understanding in economics is greater than that of any other politician, and he must stand by his promise and soften the blow of the international recession in Israel. For this he needs Kadima in his coalition; it's easier to pass an economic program when the opposition is weak. Bibi needs Tzipi, not for peace, but for the economy, and he hopes the business community, who supported him when he was finance minister, will rally behind his setting up as broad a government as possible.

Netanyahu deserves a chance because he claims he has matured and learned to work with people and listen to them. He will be tested on the "conduct" that foiled him during his previous term, and above all on his ability to be a unifying leader and not upset large segments of the public and establishment. And if he fails this time, too, the parliamentary method will once more topple him from power.

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Analysis: In a Palestinian unity gov't, Hamas wins

Khaled Abu Toameh

THE JERUSALEM POST, Feb. 23, 2009

Even if Hamas agrees to form a unity government with Fatah, this does not mean that the Islamist movement would change its overall strategy or soften its position on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Barring last-minute obstacles, reconciliation talks are slated to be launched in Cairo this week between representatives of Hamas and Fatah in a bid to reach agreement on the formation of a new Palestinian unity government.

The talks are not aimed at persuading Hamas to change its ideology or recognize Israel's right to exist or renounce terrorism.

Instead, they are designed to find a formula that would allow the two parties to sit together in a unity government whose primary mission would be to rebuild, with the help of the international community, houses and institutions in the Gaza Strip that were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead.

Fatah leaders have already made it clear that they are not going to the talks to ask Hamas to make any "political concessions."

These leaders stressed that the talks are mainly aimed at resolving their differences with Hamas and establishing a unity government as a way of lifting the blockade that was imposed on the Gaza Strip after the movement came to power in January 2006.

Hamas spokesmen, on the other hand, have made it clear that the movement's participation in any future government with Fatah should not be seen as a step toward "moderation."

As a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip explained on Monday: "If anyone thinks that Hamas is going to give up its principles and ideology in return for ministerial posts or international aid, they are mistaken."

He pointed out that if Hamas really wanted to change its policies, it could have done so three years ago. Then, the international community set three conditions for dealing with the newly elected Hamas regime: renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept all agreements signed between Israel and the PLO.

"Then we said no and we continue to say no today," the Hamas representative said. "We haven't changed and we're not going to change just to make [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas happy."

He and other Hamas representatives said that they were nevertheless not opposed to the idea of forming a unity government with Fatah "because of the huge challenges facing the Palestinian people."

In other words, Hamas is saying that it will form a unity government with Fatah only because the new reality on the ground and the results of the Israeli general elections require that the Palestinians close ranks.

Both Hamas and Fatah realize that the only way to persuade the international community to contribute to the reconstruction work in the Gaza Strip is by ending their continued power struggle and forming a unity government.

Ever since the war ended, the two parties have been engaged in a bitter power struggle over who's in charge of rebuilding the Gaza Strip - bickering that has prompted many countries to delay sending financial and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians there.

Hamas and Fatah are also worried about the rise of right-wing parties in Israel's recent general election.

Both factions expect a right-wing coalition led by Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman to escalate tensions in the region by launching an all-out military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Ibrahim Abu al-Naja, a senior Fatah official, said over the weekend that the latest political developments in Israel, namely the probable rise of Netanyahu to power, require that his faction join forces with Hamas.

Another Fatah leader claimed on Monday that a Likud-led coalition would signal the "death of the peace process."

This, he said, would "undermine the Palestinian Authority and boost Hamas."

At present, the prospects of establishing a Hamas-Fatah government appear to be slim, as the gap between the two sides appears to be as wide as ever. The propaganda war between the two parties is still raging despite efforts to create a better atmosphere ahead of the Cairo talks.

Moreover, Hamas on Monday threw a bombshell by announcing that it has arrested Fatah security officers who allegedly helped the IDF during the war in the Gaza Strip.

Some of the suspects even made televised "confessions," saying their Fatah handlers in Ramallah had recruited them to gather information about the movements and whereabouts of Hamas members.

The Hamas allegations were strongly condemned by Abbas's top aide and unofficial spokesman, Yasser Abed Rabbo, who rushed to accuse Hamas of seeking to sabotage the Cairo reconciliation discussions.

In any case, a new Palestinian unity government would mean victory for Hamas for two reasons: one, the movement would not be required to make any major political concessions and, two, a unity government would turn the movement into a legitimate and internationally recognized player in the Palestinian arena.

Ironically, the same forces that have been working so hard over the past three years to delegitimize Hamas are now helping the movement win the international recognition that it is so desperate to gain.

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