Israel Election: Politics of Paralysis

February 10, 2009
Israel Election: Politics of Paralysis
Israelis headed to the polls today, but the outcome of the vote doesn’t offer much encouragement for peace in the Middle East.

Of the leaders of the four major parties, the two who have been most in the forefront of serious peace negotiations with Palestinians seem the least likely to win or make gains. Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party and Ehud Barak of Labour negotiated with Palestinian leaders in 2000 and in 2008, respectively, on the basis of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right wing Likud, seems poised to do the best. He has strongly opposed a Palestinian state, emphasizes economic cooperation over a political deal with Palestinians, opposed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and argued that the recent Israeli military offensive there did not go far enough in crippling Hamas. (See pictures of Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza.)

Avigdor Lieberman, former Likudnik and leader of the up-and-coming Yisrael Beitenu party, is a settler in the West Bank who emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in the late ’70s. He seems likely to win a strong bargaining position in a new coalition government. He favors a two-state solution but is running what many regard as an anti-Arab campaign; he advocates requiring Israel’s Arab population, about 20% of the whole, to sign loyalty oaths or lose their citizen rights.

Such a political lineup is a sign of how Israel is adrift. In the past, Israel had leaders with vision and the fortitude to implement it. Ben-Gurion succeeded in establishing the Jewish state in 1948. Golda Meir scored an incalculable strategic victory by defeating Arab armies and occupying Arab territories in the 1967 war. Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt in 1979. Yitzhak Rabin signed a deal with the PLO before his assassination in 1995.

Today’s Israeli leaders have fuzzy vision and lack the means to implement much of anything. Kadima founder Ariel Sharon, and his successors as party leader Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, realized that political realities and Palestinian demographics meant Israel could no longer occupy the West Bank and Gaza forever. Yet, none of them has put forth a sensible plan for peace with the Palestinians or shown the will to reach a final comprehensive settlement. Although Olmert-Livni resumed Israel’s peace negotiations with the Palestinians, their three-year terms in office as PM and foreign minister will be remembered for two senseless wars – massive assaults on Lebanon and Gaza that seem to have only strengthened the militant Islamist factions that were targeted in the attacks. Israel’s international standing, meanwhile, has been significantly eroded by those wars as well as its halting commitment to peace. Meanwhile, Barak, erstwhile peacemaker but defense minister during the latest war, prefers to campaign as a military man. In evident references to Lieberman and Livni, respectively, he reportedly questions whether they’ve killed anybody or carried a gun.

Israel’s drift has been partly caused by the failure of any of its leaders to offer new vision and take meaningful steps to implement it. One of the results is a further fragmentation of Israeli politics, which is likely to paralyze the country’s future course, at least for the time being. If Netanyahu, Livni, Barak and Liberman slice up the vote, there could be weeks if not months of haggling before a prime minister can form a new government. That government in turn will be deeply divided on many of the issues related to the peace process, led by a prime minister who himself or herself lacks a strong vision or the clout to implement one.

Certainly the Palestinian groups, Hamas in particular, have done their share to push Israel’s political fragmentation along. Israeli voters are understandably wary of politicians who negotiate with Palestinians and get suicide bombings and rocket attacks in return. Hamas’s pathetic failure to run Gaza as a model state following Israel’s pullout four years ago did nothing to bolster Israel’s sagging peace camp. (See pictures of Gaza digs out.)

But part of the problem is that politics have badly fragmented on the Palestinian side, too. Israel’s failure to seriously negotiate on the creation of a viable independent Palestinian state has severely undermined the authority of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and boosted the rise of the militants of Hamas.

President Obama’s arrival in office comes in the nick of time. He has signaled his strong interest in not just keeping the guns quiet, but in negotiating an end-of-conflict settlement of the long Arab-Israeli dispute. His leadership in the Middle East may be the only way to halt the spiral, strengthen the moderates and create a dynamic whereby the Israeli and Palestinian people can eventually be offered the chance to vote in separate referenda on a final peace agreement negotiated by their leaders. If it gets to that point, I have no doubt Israelis – and Palestinians, too – will vote for peace.

Unfortunately, that remains a big if.


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