The Middle East Channel

The domestic politics of Israeli peacemaking

The (possible) resumption of direct and high-level talks between Israel and Palestine has generated a wide range of reactions among analysts and pundits. Much of it has been negative, particularly when it comes to presumptions about Israeli intentions. The standard assumption among observers is of a stronger rightwing government, with a couple maybe-centrists here and ...

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The (possible) resumption of direct and high-level talks between Israel and Palestine has generated a wide range of reactions among analysts and pundits. Much of it has been negative, particularly when it comes to presumptions about Israeli intentions. The standard assumption among observers is of a stronger rightwing government, with a couple maybe-centrists here and there, facing off against a weaker leftwing opposition — a formula that many assume can only mean the continuation of the status quo.

Things may turn out that way, but we simply cannot know at this point. Information is contradictory and incomplete. More importantly, the domestic politics of peacemaking in Israel encompasses multiple considerations among a variety of parties. It is too simplistic to contend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a rightwing ideologue who is only stalling for time, while Israel’s intra- and inter-party struggles and politicians’ personal ambitions will exert considerable influence over how committed Israel is to talks. 

Of the parties in the government coalition, Likud-Beiteinu is an electoral alliance of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. In the past, Likud could be considered a center-right party. Its ideological roots lie in the maximalist priorities of Revisionist Zionism, but by the 2000s it had come to accept (though not formally) that a Palestinian state was probably inevitable; but that for security reasons, rather than historical or biblical, the West Bank and Gaza had to remain under Israeli control.

That changed in the recent Likud primaries, when a number of more moderate individuals were dumped and several hardline annexationists were promoted to higher positions on the electoral slate — all but guaranteeing them election to the Knesset and a place in government. Among them, Danny Danon has declared, "I will use my strength and influence to convince as many people as I can within the party…that a Palestinian state is bad news for Israel." Tzipi Hotovely wrote last year that "the territories of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] are mostly uninhabited…90% of the territory is empty," which facilitates "the complete application of Israeli law over Judea and Samaria." Ze’ev Elkin believes in a single state between the river and the sea under Israeli sovereignty.

Yisrael Beiteinu has long been a little more far right; its autocratic leader, Avigdor Lieberman, lives in a West Bank settlement. Lieberman hates Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him "the main and greatest obstacle to peace," and mistrusts the Palestinians. He would tolerate a rump Palestinian state in the West Bank, but intends on annexing most of it for Israel. His first reaction to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement on the renewal of talks was that negotiations won’t be conducted on the basis of the 1967 lines, nor would he agree to any settlement freeze. He added, for good measure, that anyway, "Mahmoud Abbas does not represent the people of Gaza or Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]."

The coalition includes Jewish Home, a recent amalgamation of religious Zionist parties, with some hardline secular nationalist support. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, is adamantly opposed to the withdrawal of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank; he intends to annex at least all of Area C and control the rest of the territory. Like Lieberman, he insists that negotiating on the basis of the Green Line or freezing settlement building aren’t options; he said that building settlements "brings life." And he’s threatened to bring the government down if talks get serious. His ministers have reacted even more aggressively: Minister of Housing Uri Ariel called freezing settlements "an immoral and non-Jewish act."

In theory, then, Netanyahu, a rightwinger anyway, is constrained by his rightist coalition and so at best will pursue talks as a deception to maintain the occupation. But this glimpse doesn’t tell the whole story of peacemaking politics. In fact, looking at the political considerations these parties need to account for, and the other parties waiting in the wings to replace them, indicates that there is a good chance Israel will move forward with the negotiating process.

First, Netanyahu is more pragmatic and opportunist than not; most of the time his opposition to a Palestinian state has been for security rather than ideological reasons. This has certainly been the case since he accepted the principle of two states in a 2009 speech, declaring his "vision of peace" in which "two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government." A bit vague, but since then he’s become more explicit. In June, in response to Bennett’s public opposition to a Palestinian state, Netanyahu firmly announced that "foreign policy is shaped by the prime minister and my view is clear. I will seek a negotiated settlement where you’d have a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state." After the formation of the government, he told foreign ministry officials that failure to make peace would result in a binational state, which in turn would be the end of Jewish self-determination.

His response to Kerry’s announcement has continued this theme. Rather than reinforce his attachment to the Land of Israel, he said his goal is to prevent "the creation of a bi-national state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River." But he emphasized the broader strategic environment, noting that a "resumption of the diplomatic process at this time as a vital strategic interest of the State of Israel" in order to end the conflict with the Palestinians so that Israel can focus on Iran and Syria. Instead of talking about settlements or geography, he specified that he is "committed, first and foremost, to the security of the citizens of Israel" and to the "security demands of the State of Israel, as well as its vital interests."

Second, it’s misleading to say that his own Likud party can stop him from engaging in serious talks. It can make things difficult for him, of course; but the rejectionists don’t control the masses of the party. The party has been beset by internal fighting over the distribution of power and personal ambitions that have nothing to do with the peace process. No other leader has the popular familiarity or stature to challenge Netanyahu in the party and carry it to victory in the next election. Even the rejectionists know this, pledging their loyalty to Netanyahu and affirming they will work with him. This would likely be confirmed even more obviously if Netanyahu made negotiations a party referendum on his leadership.

Third, Bennett knows that if he takes Jewish Home out of the coalition, he’d be damaging his own prospects for getting back in to the coalition. Bennett’s party is a merger of at least two different parties, comprised of would-be challengers to his own leadership. It was a difficult process to unify them, and, given that they are all right or far-right, it’s not clear that it could survive remaining in a government that concedes territory.

Bennett is walking a tightrope. The last two public opinion polls have given him 15 seats, up from his current 12. That increase comes while Bennett hasn’t had to face any hard choices in coalition policy yet. It’s not clear how much of that support would remain were he to continue supporting serious talks. But pulling out of the government carries its own risks for him, of which he is well aware.

Polls show Strong Israel, a small far-right party, winning two to three seats. Strong Israel is probably taking support away from Likud-Beiteinu, and it couldn’t pass the electoral threshold (2 percent of the popular vote) to enter the Knesset in the January election. But it’s a challenge to Jewish Home’s dominance of the religious Zionist and far right vote. Its leaders, Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad, have ties to some people in Jewish Home and its members used to be part of National Union, which itself once comprised a faction in Jewish Home’s predecessor. There is, then, the possibility of an intra-far right struggle for the party.

If he loses his position Bennett won’t have another institutional home. This is a strong incentive to bring the party along with negotiations. Israeli journalist Tal Schneider also pointed out that Bennett’s response to the Kerry initiative didn’t mention the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners involved in terror attacks — reportedly a key factor for the talks to proceed.

Fourth, the coalition is composed of more centrist parties that have been more explicit about promoting the peace process. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is small (six members) but she’s determined to push the negotiations forward, putting constant pressure on Netanyahu; it’s the only issue on which she ran. As recently as June she publicly insisted that "We will not remain in the government without a peace process." The last few polls have the party dropping two to three seats; a successful negotiating process is her only chance to stay relevant.

Also in the government is Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid. His ambition is to become prime minister, and as soon as possible. He’s been quoted as saying that if the party hadn’t joined the government, "in a year-and-a-half, I’ll replace [Netanyahu] as prime minister." There’s no indication he has given up on his frantic schedule, and being in government gives him the chance to build a policy reputation and new support base. To do this he’ll need a lot more votes than he received in the last election (19 Knesset seats). He’ll certainly play to the right to this end, taking a more hawkish stance on peace process issues. But his party is comprised of several doves and centrists, who — combined with the need to take some votes from the left — will pull him toward a more moderate position. In short, engaging in a genuine negotiating process is his best chance to build support.

Finally, waiting outside the coalition, eager to get back in, are Shas and Labor. This government is notable because it’s the first in many years that didn’t start off with the haredi parties in it. That’s because Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett oppose many of their priorities, but especially the financial demands they make of the state to support their communities and their opposition to serving in the military (a requirement for all other Israeli Jews — a bill to draft the haredim is still working its way through the Knesset process).

Lapid and Bennett formed a tight pact during negotiations to form a government, blocking haredi parties from joining, and since then pushing a legislative agenda that will undermine their access to resources. Shas’s ultimate leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has called Lapid "wicked" and a "demon," and mocked the religious Zionist Jewish Home for being composed of "gentiles and heretics." Some haredim have even publicly called for "revenge" against Jewish Home by opposing the settlement enterprise. If they can replace either Yesh Atid or Jewish Home in government, they will. Reports have continued to give this impression: In March, during talks to form a government, Netanyahu reportedly asked Shas to stay out of government for now in return for being brought in later. In April, Yosef allegedly claimed that Netanyahu would let Jewish Home and Yesh Atid go and replace them with Shas.

In addition, the party’s recently-returned political leader, Aryeh Deri, is a known dove whose position on territorial withdrawals is far more moderate and open than Bennett’s. When he announced his return to politics he specifically noted that his "great fear is wars. I never voted in favor of a war or military operation" and that "I’m obviously in favor of a peace process." Compare this to previous leader, Eli Yishai’s, views: On war with Hamas in November, 2012: "The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages." On the peace process: "I do not in any way believe that these talks should be held, point-blank…Not just has nothing come of it, but the Palestinians are just getting more inflexible and more radical in their position, all just to torpedo any agreement and peace process." If necessary, Shas under Deri can reinforce the government’s support for talks.

Similarly, the Labor Party has in recent weeks been talking about the need for a real peace process, after ignoring the issue in favor of social-economic issues. Its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been prompting Netanyahu to return to talks, telling him in May to respond positively to the reintroduced Arab League peace plan. She’s gone so far as to send him a letter assuring him the party would serve as a "safety net" to protect him during peace talks.

Public opinion surveys bear out Lapid’s concerns, and Shas’s and Labor’s hopes. In the most recent poll, conducted on July 17, Likud-Beiteinu drops from 31 to 29 seats; Labor increases from 15 to 17 mandates; Yesh Atid falls from 19 to 15 seats; and Shas, too, drops from 11 to nine. Bearing these challenges out even more is the support that Meretz, a party to the left of Labor and one that has also made the peace process a major part of its platform, has gotten from public polling. Currently at six seats, the last poll gave it 11 seats; the one before, nine. In other words, there is growing dissatisfaction with parties in the government and growing support for parties outside of it. In the case of Shas, the drop in support is likely due to the fact that it is out of government and unable to stop the changes being made to block access to critical resources upon which its constituents depend. A return to government is likely to reinvigorate support.

Finally, surveys of public opinion on issues related to the peace process itself indicate majority support, including among Jewish-Israelis, for talks and for a final settlement. One recent poll found that 62 percent of Israelis support a two-state solution (a similar finding to a December 2012 poll); other surveys indicate that even a majority of voters for rightwing parties support a Palestinian state and dividing Jerusalem. Among Jewish-Israelis, 69 percent said they’d back Netanyahu if he adopted the Arab League initiative. The monthly Peace Index of the Israel Democracy Institute finds support for negotiations over the last several years to be consistently over 50 percent, usually over 60 percent, and sometimes reaching 70 percent. At the same time, public opinion in Israel has historically followed leaders’ efforts when they’ve pushed major decisions on war and peace.

Indeed, Netanyahu seems to recognize this: he’s just declared that should the talks produce any results, he’ll put them to a national referendum. In theory this gives him political space and gets him around any spoiler role his party or coalition members might play.

None of this is to say the talks will happen as planned, or that they’ll be easy, or even end successfully. What the Palestinians do, how the Americans handle the talks, and what happens elsewhere in the region will all influence the contours of negotiations. It will take much work to make the two sides’ demands compatible. Israeli public opinion is suspicious and worried. And Netanyahu might decide, in the end, that his position will be better ensured by stalling or avoiding talks.

Still, there is room for more careful consideration. The political games being played in Israel create space for serious efforts, as leaders and parties try to assert themselves and keep their options open. This might even have the effect of creating an accidental force for progress. Either way, the political jostling makes things less simplistic and more hopeful than often assumed.

Brent E. Sasley teaches Middle East and Israeli politics at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs at Mideast Matrix and at Open Zion, and tweets at @besasley.

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