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The Israel of the Three Likudniks

The elections were a clarifying moment for Israel and the Palestinians, but what about the Obama administration?

By , the president of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former Israeli negotiator.

With the final results now in, the horse trading over forming a new government in Israel is very much underway after Tuesday's elections seemed to produce the messiest of political outcomes - anything but clarity.

With the final results now in, the horse trading over forming a new government in Israel is very much underway after Tuesday’s elections seemed to produce the messiest of political outcomes – anything but clarity.

Two narratives regarding the voters choice are currently competing with each other; Livni and Kadima are claiming a mandate for a centrist government, being the largest party, while Netanyahu and Likud argue that a shift to the right has occurred, producing a mandate for the right to govern (the right-wing bloc has taken 65 seats in the 120 member Knesset). Some time next week, in accordance with the Israeli rules of the game, President Shimon Peres will call on either Netanyahu or Livni (and most money is on the former) to form a governing coalition within 28 days with a possible extension of 14 more days. The coalition bargaining in the weeks ahead will suggest that everything is up for grabs. Yet in more ways than may seem immediately apparent, Tuesday’s results have added a degree of clarity to Israel’s political situation.

Some ways in which this is true are obvious. The structure of the Israeli system has, for instance, been definitively exposed as broken. It endemically produces dysfunctional governments by way of fragile, fractured, and survival-obsessed coalitions. Again, the largest single faction in the Knesset will constitute less than a quarter of the members of parliament. The system seems designed to avoid making hard choices given the permanent preponderance of either hybrid governing coalitions or reliance on small niche parties, or both. That is exacerbated by the way in which Israel’s relationship with its principal sponsor and ally, the United States, plays out. America’s coddling and often irresponsible indulgence of specific Israeli policies that work against America’s own national interest and often contribute to undermining Israel itself further exacerbate this tendency toward decision avoidance. Not surprisingly then, Israel is abuzz right now with discussion of the need for electoral reform and reevaluating governance system.

Israel also witnessed during this election the stunning paucity of any meaningful public policy debate. One could search far and wide for a meaningful plan on the economy, on health care, or on education policy, let alone realistic or detailed proposals regarding the security and regional challenges Israel faces. There is a degree of illiteracy clouding the election debate in Israel and surrounding the Israeli media coverage of issues that would be difficult for Americans to comprehend. Indeed, Israel’s voters deserve better.

But the real clarifying moment in this election was a swing to the right that has at least made the Jewish part of the Israeli conversation into something resembling a family argument within the Likud household. What happened in this election is that the breakdown between the blocs went from being 70-50 in favor of the center-left to 65-55 for the right, ultra-right, and religious-right (although even these numbers are a little misleading, as the 10 or so members of non-Zionist and ostensibly Arab parties are not considered to be potential coalition allies by the Zionist center-left). In simplified terms, there was a 15-seat swing from center-left to right that can be largely explained as eight seats lost by Labor and Meretz along with all seven seats of the imploded Pensioners Party having mostly gone to Kadima, while about an equivalent number migrated from Kadima to Likud.

Always expect the unexpected in Israeli politics. At this stage, a Netanyahu-led government, with both Lieberman, religious parties, and Kadima, seems most likely. While a rotation of government between Netanyahu and Livni (as Israel experienced in the 1980’s) is possible, a Livni-led coalition is rather a stretch but not totally inconceivable.

Livni’s last minute message of hope for a non-Netanyahu-led government swallowed up much of the Zionist-left of Labor and Meretz. In one encouraging sign, Israeli voters, especially women, seemed to respond positively when Livni played up the change she represented as being a woman candidate, and they rejected some of the more chauvinist sloganeering of the Likud and Labor leaders.

So here we are in the Israel of the three Likudniks. Allow me to explain: Israel’s three largest parties (together accounting for about 75 of the 110 mandates decided by the Jewish vote) are now all led by Likudniks and by a Likud-derived outlook — albeit of slightly different emphases. Kadima was of course birthed by the Likud; its founding father is none other than Ariel Sharon; its current leader Tzipi Livni was a former stalwart Likudnik; and its No. 2, Shaul Mofaz, joined the Likud following a career in the military.

Let’s call this Likud-lite.

Then one has the brand-name version: Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Let’s call this traditional Likud. Finally, there is Yisrael Beiteinu (or Israel Our Homeland) led by longtime Likud party functionary and the party’s former director-general, Avigdor Lieberman. His No. 2, Uzi Landau, was a 22-year Likud Knesset member and led the so-called Likud rebel faction during Sharon’s Gaza disengagement. Lieberman rebranded the Likud for a Russian audience and gave it a nasty and overtly racist edge. Let’s call this Likud gone wild.

The power that has now been accrued by Lieberman’s party is one of Tuesday’s most stunning outcomes — he appears to be the king or queen-maker. What is more sinister and disturbing is how muted a political effort there has been to draw a red line in front of Lieberman’s racist rhetoric and policies and to place him beyond the coalition pale (for an excellent discussion of the Lieberman phenomenon, see Gershom Gorenberg’s piece at The American Prospect). Yisrael Beiteinu ran on a platform that would have Israeli Arabs needing to pass a loyalty test to Israel in order for their citizenship not to be rescinded. Lieberman is an almost bizarre Israeli twist on the European model of the populist, ethnonationalist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant parties that have done so well in France (Le Pen’s Front National), Austria (Heider’s Freedom Party), Belgium (Vlaams Blok), Switzerland (Blocher’s Swiss People’s Party), and elsewhere. Why the Israeli case is so special does not concern the level support for Lieberman or how hard-line he is but rather lies in the following two aspects: In Lieberman’s case, he himself is an immigrant (hailing from Moldova), and the targets of his invective are the Arab inhabitants whose presence here long preceded his. More importantly, in most other instances, a cordon sanitaire has effectively been erected around the racist right to exclude them from governing coalitions. In Israel, the opposite path is being pursued with Livni and Netanyahu both wooing Lieberman as a potential coalition ally. It’s still possible that Lieberman may be excluded from the coalition and he may even overplay his hand, though it is unlikely.

In a sense, something deeper might be at work here. Israel describes itself as a Jewish democratic state, and the Lieberman phenomenon in part may represent the extent to which Israel in practice has emphasized the Jewish part of that definition over the democratic part. The Israeli political establishment, notably including the Zionist left, has failed to create a more inclusive notion of Israeli-ness or even a political system that confers a real sense of democratic belonging on its non-Jewish, Arab minority. In very real and important ways, the challenge of marrying Jewish and democratic has not been addressed whether that be in terms of budgetary allocations, equality of opportunity, or in Israel’s national narrative. When the peace camp tried to win Jewish majority support for the idea of two states and an end of occupation, it focused on the demographic argument (Israel will only remain Jewish if it leaves the territories). It is not such a long journey from that line of logic to Liebermanism. In this moment of clarity, Israel will then have to decide whether Liebermanism is the Zionist end-game or whether a more inclusive and democratic Israel can flourish. I think Israelis can rise to the challenge and create a more open vision for Israeli society, and that will certainly be one of the issues to address for what is left of the left in Labor and Meretz. The Palestinian Arab minority in Israel and its leaders also need itself to think through how to best contribute to a more inclusivist vision of the future.

For the good of Israel’s democracy, Labor must now build a strong and alternative agenda to appeal to Israelis that is outside of the Likud family. That requires Labor to resist the temptation of government and instead lead the opposition by building a program around a social-democratic economic agenda, a civil rights agenda, a new narrative of national inclusivity agenda and an end to occupation agenda. Indeed the balance of power within Labor strongly suggests that it would not join a Netanyahu government and is headed for opposition.

All this does not mean that one should give up on a government of the national right-wing camp when it comes to the issues of territories, peace and security. In fact an opportunity has been created to test whether having the hardliners in government in Israel can produce a game-changing moment of realism. If he is to be prime minister again, it is unlikely that Netanyahu wants to have another abrupt and inglorious term. Greatness tends to ultimately only be achieved by those Israeli leaders who deliver on the peace agenda. So a Netanyahu government could spend its time attempting to destroy Hamas, expanding settlements, and demonstrating its fealty to greater Israel (while very likely, coming to realize the limitations of military power), while, the international community could spends its time containing the violence and the damage. Alternatively, one could try to tempt Netanyahu with a very different option. That possibility will be greatly influenced by the postures adopted by the various external actors, principally the Palestinians, Arab states, the Obama administration, and the Quartet.

For the Palestinians too, this should act as something of a clarifying moment. President Abbas’s response to the Israeli elections, namely that the international community should only work with the new Israeli government if it meets the same criteria applied to Hamas (i.e. accept a Palestinian state, continue the peace process, and the equivalent of nonviolence, which in this case would be no settlement expansion) seems on the face of it not unreasonable. But Abbas’s admonition might make more sense in reverse; in other words, the international community should work with whatever government Israel elects to advance a two-state solution just as they should have worked with whatever government the Palestinians elected. If there were ever a time for a more serious effort toward Palestinian internal reconciliation, this is surely it. Indeed, were Abbas able to deliver a unity government now and an arrangement with Hamas, then it would be difficult for the international community to continue to apply the existing and unreasonable conditions for working with such a government. This may not be the first choice for President Abbas but after last Tuesday, the other options make even less sense, especially with Hamas gaining in popularity.

The entire Fatah political platform has been predicated on Palestinian independence and de-occupation being achieved exclusively via the negotiations with Israel- an already discredited and now desperately implausible premise. The Palestinian false binary choice of only negotiations or only armed resistance needs to be refreshed as the attempt at rebuilding a national movement, including the reform of the PLO, goes forward. There are also more urgent reasons to advance the Palestinian unity agenda, notably the immediate challenges posed by the destruction in Gaza and the need for an address for the international community in pursuing reconstruction efforts there. The forthcoming Arab summit in Qatar at the end of March should be seen as a target date for a breakthrough on Palestinian reconciliation efforts. That will require a team of Arab mediators, including but not restricted to the Qatari host and encompassing supporters of both the so-called moderate and resistance camps (including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and almost certainly Turkey as well). A quiet and discrete clarification by the US and Europe that they are encouraging such efforts might be crucial. If the Palestinians do take this as a clarifying moment then it could also create a more constructive backdrop against which the new Israeli government will have to make its decisions on whether to move forward toward confrontation or to pursue a somewhat unexpected but certainly more promising track. And that brings us to the key and perhaps defining role that the new Obama administration will have to think long and hard about.

The Obama administration has proposed an ambitious agenda for the Middle East and notably for resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and has appointed Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to lead that effort. President Obama defined the attainment of a two-state solution in terms of America’s own national security interests. If that is the case – and there is a powerful and compelling argument to be made for it – then one should not be too deterred by internal domestic political developments on either the Palestinian or Israeli sides. Of course both the Israelis and the Palestinians have their own responsibilities and interests that cannot be ignored nor can they be left entirely to their own devices. The Obama administration can choose to spend its time in office preventing further deterioration, limiting damage, and improving aspects of Palestinian economic and security capacities, and it might find itself having to do some of those things anyway.

However, such an approach will not get to grips with the core of the conflict or its ramifications for America in the region. In fact, US power and prestige might again be deployed in an exercise best described as death not so much by a thousand cuts as by a thousand checkpoints. The question then becomes whether the new political realities in Israel will also act as a clarifying moment for American involvement. The peace process as it was already structured, in Oslo and then again in Annapolis, was not delivering. There are structural flaws – not least, that Israelis and Palestinians cannot negotiate the core issues alone and need an outside broker and that Palestinian statehood cannot be incubated under Israeli occupation. The very structure of the peace process has become a disincentive for peace itself. There now exists an opportunity to do away with the illusion, even if the danger also exists that events may take a more violent, confrontational and bloody turn.

A different approach would require the US conducting back-to-back talks with the Israeli side and with a Palestinian (or Palestinian plus Arab states) interlocutor, in which one attempts to address the key legitimate needs and concerns of each party. It will be the role of the US and international partners to produce a proposal and implementation plan. One should take a leaf from the pages of Don Corleone, and make them an offer they can’t refuse, and do not then get sidetracked by conversations about industrial parks in Nablus or Jenin.

Naturally, one does not only have to contend with the Israeli/Palestinian track, and there is some value to the adage that one way to get out of an intractable problem is to expand it. In other words, work on a comprehensive peace effort that involves Syria and the Arab states as well and that seeks to put into effect the Arab Peace Initiative that would give Israel peaceful and normal relations with the entire Arab world. A sincere good-will effort should be made with Israel’s next prime minister, particularly if it is Mr. Netanyahu, to propose an eminently reasonably plan for Israel’s future peace and security that is also predicated on ending the occupation. Iran too will have to feature, as Israel’s concerns on this front will need to be allayed without resorting to military action. A trade-off is imaginable in which the US is given space to pursue the engagement option with Iran while the US gives Israel cover as increased calls are heard for a WMD-free Middle East, also probably providing Israel with a broader set of security guarantees. If Mr. Netanyahu or any Israeli leader is finally put in the position of having to make real choices, then don’t be too surprised if they choose well.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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