Those who hoped that Barack Obama would be arriving in Israel to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together, after four years of impasse in the peace process, will be sorely disappointed. At the weekend, Arab-American leaders revealed that Obama had made it clear he would not present a peace plan, because Israel has indicated it is not interested in an agreement with the Palestinians.
Will the Palestinians be able to take advantage of President Obama’s apparent renewed interest in diplomacy? Here is the rub. Benjamin Netanyahu already has a stranglehold on the politics of his potential peace partners. He can easily manipulate the fortunes of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the two biggest tests he faces: the peace process overseen by the international community, and reconciliation talks with the rival Palestinian faction Hamas.
Shortly before polling day in Israel, the Arab League issued a statement urging Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the country’s population, to turn out en masse to vote. The call revealed a profound, if by now well-established, misunderstanding of Israeli politics. It assumed that the Israeli polity can be divided neatly into left and right wings, and that the differences between the two correspond primarily to relative willingness to make concessions to advance the cause of peace.
This election has been a personal blow to Netanyahu, but not to the right. Netanyahu misread the public mood, but not on the central issues that should define the left-right divide in Israel: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decades of belligerent Israeli occupation. Far from a collapse of the right, the election demonstrated that the right is continuing to push the center of political gravity ever further rightwards.
As Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s Palestinian minority, gears up for the country’s general election next week, the most common poster in the city features three far-right leaders noted for their virulently anti-Arab views. Paid for by one of the largest Palestinian parties, the posters are intended to mobilize the country’s Palestinian citizens to vote. They pose a blunt question in Arabic: “Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?”
The inciting cause of the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas has little to do with the firing of rockets, whether by Hamas or the other Palestinian factions. The conflict predates the rockets – and even the creation of Hamas – by decades. It is the legacy of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948, forcing many of them from their homes in what is now Israel into the tiny Gaza Strip. That original injustice has been compounded by the occupation Israel has not only failed to end but has actually intensified in recent years with its relentless siege of the small strip of territory.
The speculation among Israelis and many observers is that an Obama second term will see much greater pressure on Israel both to make major concessions on Palestinian statehood and to end its aggressive posturing towards Iran over its supposed ambition to build a nuclear warhead. Such thinking, however, is fanciful. The White House’s approach towards Netanyahu and Israel is unlikely to alter significantly.
Israelis barely had time to absorb the news that they were heading into a summer election when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday pulled the rug from underneath the charade. Rancourous early electioneering had provided cover for a secret agreement between Netanyahu and the main opposition party, Kadima, to form a new, expanded coalition government.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, appears to have driven the final nail in the coffin of the Zionist left with his decision to split from the Labor party and create a new “centrist, Zionist” faction in the Israeli parliament. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressing reasons for wanting Barak to stay in the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. He has provided useful diplomatic cover as Netanyahu has stymied progress in a US-sponsored peace process.
A new opinion poll reveals not only a further shift rightwards in popular Israeli attitudes but also hints at the reasons for Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuing inflexibility in peace talks with the Palestinians. The latest survey, published last weekend, found that 37 per cent want to deny non-Jewish citizens voting rights, and 69 per cent support proposed legislation requiring a loyalty pledge from non-Jews to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”.
Pressure is mounting on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to bring the opposition leader Tzipi Livni into the government after last week’s difficult meeting with the US president, according to senior analysts. Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Mr Netanyahu now understood that he faced a stark choice between clashing with the White House and ditching the far-right parties in his coalition.
Ehud Olmert, who handed over the Israeli premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday after three years heading the government, suffered a slow and public political demise. The eight lame-duck months since his resignation have been spent energetically refashioning his image as a successful leader — the “Olmert myth”, as one commentator recently called it. Humiliated in a war in Lebanon and buffeted by corruption scandals at home, Mr Olmert is reported to believe he will one day make a political comeback like Mr Netanyahu, who led the government in the late 1990s.
The near-tie in parliamentary seats between the centrist Kadima party and the right-wing Likud is evidence of a dramatic lurch rightward by the Israeli electorate this week. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni won a wafer-thin victory after the final results were released yesterday because traditional left-wing voters defected to her from Meretz and the once-dominant Labor party. Likewise Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party failed to muster the necessary votes to ward off Ms Livni’s challenge because traditional Likud supporters drifted into the camp of the far-right.
Elias Khoury, a 33-year-old architect from the village of Ibilin in Galilee, has been a lifelong supporter of the Communist Democratic Front, the only joint Arab-Jewish party represented in the Israeli parliament. No longer. Tomorrow, when Israelis head to the polls to elect their next government, Mr Khoury – one of the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens – will be staying home rather than casting a vote. “After the attack on Gaza, I am sure there will never be two states here. It’s going to be either a Jewish state with no Arabs, or an Arab state with no Jews.”
Of the three politicians who announced the military assault on Gaza to the world on Saturday, perhaps only the outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert has little to lose – or gain – from its outcome. Flanking the Israeli prime minister were two of the main contenders for his job: Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and the new leader of Mr Olmert’s centrist party, Kadima, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister and leader of the left-wing Labor Party. The attack on Gaza may make or break this pair’s political fortunes.
Tzipi Livni, the woman leading the ruling Kadima party into Israel’s forthcoming elections, stoked anger in the region last week when she warned that a peace deal would put the future of the country’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens inside Israel in doubt. Speaking to a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, she said: “When the Palestinian state is created, I will be able to go to Palestinian citizens, who we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them – you are residents with equal rights, but your national solution is in another place.”
Israelis may have noted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unusually dejected demeanour when he gave a televised address to the nation last week on the eve of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations. Most, however, had no way of knowing why Olmert was so downcast. An Israeli judge had slapped a sweeping order to prevent the Israeli media from repeating reports published in American newspapers that Olmert was becoming rapidly ensnared in a corruption scandal.
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