Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Netanyahu needs friends for action

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Colin Rubenstein

 

Daily Telegraph - 25 January 2013

 

This week's election in Israel has produced a legislature with broad ethnic, gender and ideological diversity, demonstrating yet again the strength and vitality of the Middle East's first genuine democracy.

Under its proportional representation system, no party in Israeli history has ever received enough seats in the 120-member Knesset (Parliament) to govern on its own and negotiations have commenced to determine the make-up of the coalition government.

Current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu party suffered heavy losses, but with 31 seats will almost certainly be asked by President Shimon Peres to attempt to form a new government requiring 61 seats, and he will have to make some tough, intriguing choices.

Contrary to widespread, misplaced pre-election speculation that Israel was shifting sharply to the right, the voters showed a moderate, pragmatic and centrist approach to pressing national issues,

The electorate opted for fresh faces offering a new style of politics and a focus on domestic concerns.

In sum, the big winners were those parties creatively campaigning on those issues such as the economy, high prices, education, universal national service and healthcare highlighted by the massive social protests just eighteen months ago.

This was epitomised by the spectacular success of former television journalist and now political kingmaker Yair Lapid, whose new Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party will be Israel's second largest with 19 seats and already courted by Netanyahu to join his government. Other new members include Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, whose party marginally improved to 15 seats, and the high profile Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party (12 seats) who performed respectably but poorer than anticipated.

Repeated polls also show Israelis - including those voting for right-wing parties - continue to overwhelmingly desire a secure peace agreement with the Palestinians leading to a genuine two-state outcome, while recognising the realities that, regrettably, the Palestinians are not ready for such a compromise, a consensus view the election result underlines.

Indeed, Yair Lapid well embodies Israel's dilemmas: wanting a two state outcome, prepared for far reaching territorial concessions outside the existing settlement blocs, but only when the conditions for peace progress are forthcoming,
a position consistent with Netanyahu's approach.

Lapid says he has no illusions about a" happy marriage "with Palestinians; instead he seeks" a divorce agreement we can live with".

Israelis know that the Palestinians are bitterly divided between Hamas in Gaza - whose goal is Israel's violent destruction - and Fatah in the West Bank, still peddling incitement and refusing to engage in substantive peace negotiations since 2008, despite repeated Israeli requests to do so.

Furthermore since 2004 no new land has been taken for settlements - which currently make up less than 2% of the West Bank and all growth has largely been within settlements that even Palestinian negotiators accepted would become part of Israel in any peace deal.

Therefore, claims that growth in Israeli settlements makes a future two-state solution impossible are just absurd, obscuring the true impediments to peace.

No matter what coalition emerges over the next few weeks, do not expect much change in the unfortunate deadlock with respect to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Israelis, like Lapid, well know that, despite international furore, construction in existing West Banks settlement blocs is not a major obstacle to peace. It is the Palestinians who are not ready for negotiations, but it would be political suicide for any Israeli government to repudiate the need to progress toward an eventual two-state agreement.

Finally, the most likely outcome is a broad, centrist coalition incorporating Lapid's party, possibly former Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni's six-seat group, The Movement, and perhaps including Bennett's Jewish Home and/or a religious party acceptable to Lapid.

Another critical reason Netanyahu will want such a broad, centrist coalition is because of the looming crisis point in the saga of Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.

As Prime Minister, he will want to convince both Israelis and foreign capitals that he speaks for the nation as he calls for strong international action to stop a nuclear-capable Iran, or if that fails, pursues a potential Israeli unilateral military strike.

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