Palestine’s Partner for Peace?

By Nadia W. Awad – The West Bank

After a month of haggling, Tzipi Livni, appointed to replace outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, announced this week that she has not been able to form a coalition government to support her rule. “Let the people choose their leaders,” she said instead, calling for early elections likely to take place in February of next year. Most observers called her decision a huge blow to peace. Livni’s inability to create a coalition government sends more than just the message of snap elections. It tells us that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may not have a partner for peace in Israel’s government after all.

Israel’s political system is a notoriously complicated one, with a large number of small parties effectively preventing any one party from winning a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In order for any government to survive, they must create an often unstable coalition with small parties that they do not necessarily have much in common with. This requires sacrifices on their part for a precious few seats. PM Olmert’s Kadima party succeeded in 2006 in building a coalition that included Labor, a large center-left political party, and Shas, a right-wing ultra-orthodox faction with 12 seats. This time round, Labor again agreed to join a new coalition. Shas, on the other hand, demanded in return for its support a large budgetary increase of 1 billion shekels ($261 million).

More controversially however, it also asked for guarantees that Livni would not discuss the future of Jerusalem in talks with Palestinian negotiators. Other small parties such as the Pensioners Party and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) followed Shas’s lead, leaving Livni with little hope of engaging them as potential partners. Right-wing party Likud also refused to join the team. Its current leader, former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, has openly sworn off the Annapolis Agreement altogether, in favor of a joint economic development program in areas where the borders of Israel and Palestine meet. His infamous “three no’s” remain: no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no discussion of the status of Jerusalem, and no negotiations under any preconditions.

The only way Livni would have been able to form a coalition government would have been to concede to these demands. It does not need to be spelled out that without Jerusalem, negotiations will go nowhere. Hence, realistically, even the formation of a coalition government would have signaled a death knoll for negotiations with the Palestinians. Often accused of not being a ‘partner for peace’, it would seem now that the Palestinians are the ones who will have nobody to negotiate with in the future.

In Israel’s complicated political system, Israeli members of Knesset (MKs) technically have 21 days after October 29th to put forward an MK who they believe can create a coalition government. Needless to say, if Livni could not do it, then it is doubtful that anybody else can. But of course, it must be considered as a possibility. Hence, the following potential scenarios now present themselves, none of which are palatable to the Palestinians. Either Israel is ruled by an unstable coalition of unwilling partners who will not discuss the status of Jerusalem, one of the major issues at the heart of future Palestinian-Israeli peace. Or, snap elections take place, with victory for one of two likely winners, Kadima or Likud. A poll taken this week suggested that Kadima might pull forward with a slight margin. However, for much of the past two years, Netanyahu, Likud’s leader, has been the favorite in polls which asked prospective voters who they would prefer as prime minister. Unfortunately, the same polls also showed that Labor is likely to lose seats.

Still, 90 days in politics is a long time, and a lot could change on the Israeli domestic front. While Netanyahu still has his chequered past to deal with (he was investigated for corruption and haunted by rumors of various scandals), Livni’s record casts her in a more favorable light. A Mossad agent based in Europe in the 1980s, she has proven herself a strong politician, especially after she refused to capitulate to the demands of Shas, which she called political blackmail. However, even with a win, the February elections are unlikely to provide her with a stable majority in favor of a peace deal. All barring a sizeable swing in favor of left-wing parties, even a victorious Livni would still have to rely on the support of right-wing or ultraorthodox religious groups. Unfortunately, most of them are deeply opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and handing back occupied east Jerusalem to the Palestinians. If Likud were to win, Netanyahu would find the support of such right-wing parties much easier to gain, but of course, a marriage of such parties would hardly elicit a positive or hopeful response from the Palestinians.

Likud is hoping to take advantage of the general shift of public opinion towards the right of the political spectrum. Israel’s own policies, despite Olmert’s late surprise admission that Israel will have to return the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights if it wants peace, suggests that they are giving in to right-wing pressure. Israeli settlers are becoming much more vocal and violent (defying even their own government’s orders), settlement numbers have expanded very sharply, more right-wing orthodox Jews have moved into east Jerusalem, basically entrenching themselves in Palestinian neighborhoods, and the separation wall is near completion, having stolen even more land from the West Bank. The situation on the ground is moving away from peace, not towards it. With Israel’s left of center parties losing ground and the right of center parties gaining, both blocs are becoming fairly evenly split, leading to a deadlock that could debilitate efforts at peacemaking in the future, as they have done in the past.

Palestinian affairs have also affected the outcomes of Israeli national elections before. Many argued that the hawkish Netanyahu’s victory against the seemingly ‘dove-ish’ Shimon Peres in the 1996 prime ministerial elections was aided by Hamas-owned suicide attacks in retaliation for Israeli incursions and assassinations. An increase in instability in Palestine is likely to shift Israeli public opinion even further right. And as always, transgressions are often overlooked when standing in the shadow of fear.

In the meantime, however, and despite the uncertainty following Livni’s call for new elections, Palestinians are forging ahead with unity talks amongst Palestinian factions, mainly Fatah and Hamas. Israel and Hamas’s shaky truce continues to be maintained. And President Abbas’s Palestinian security forces have been deployed in several large Palestinian towns, including, most recently, Hebron. These forces are attempting to improve security and stability, as well as to deny Hamas the possibility of extending its control over the West Bank.

Hopefully Palestinians will continue in this course. If Labor does not lose as much ground as it is projected to, and if Livni, with her own personal strengths, is able to convince the Israeli public to elect her party, they might just be able to shift the dynamics enough to give the likes of Shas and UTJ less power to demand such concessions from the major parties.

Peace is the only acceptable conclusion to this conflict and Livni alone will not do as a partner. As Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “We do not want to make peace with one faction in Israel. We want peace with all Israelis.”

(This article was originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – on October 29, 2008)

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