Burning Issues brings our best opinion writers to one podium, where they respond, in brief and in real time, to a question about one of the hottest news topics on the agenda. Our aim is also to get you, our readers, involved, by sharing your opinions with the JPost community, or if you wish, by responding to any specific posting. A link to the writer's most recent column appears at the end of each posting.
Question #9What effect, if any, will the entry of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party into the government have on the peace process and the prospects of renewing negotiations with the Palestinians?
Contributions by Daniel Pipes, Jonathan Tobin, Barbara Sofer, Elliot Jager, Amotz Asa-El, Gerald Steinberg, Calev Ben-David, Michael Freund, MJ Rosenberg, Daniel Doron, Jonathan Rosenblum, Shmuel Katz, Gershon Baskin and Shlomo Avineri.
#8: Should Israel invade Gaza?
#7: Should President Katsav quit?
#6: How should world react to N. Korean nuke test?
#5: Should Israel change its system of gov't?
#4: Should Israel support Abbas against Hamas?
#3: Should Israel initiate talks with Syria?
#2: Who is ahead, Bush or Ahmadinejad?
#1: Should the Pope have apologized?
There has been no peace process in the Middle East, since Yasser Arafat's rejection of Israel's offers at the Camp David summit in summer 2000, and his subsequent resort to violence. What has consequently emerged, as a substitute to a peace process is Ariel Sharon's unilateralism. Yet that formula, between last summer's Lebanon war and this winter's coalition expansion, has been dealt a 1-2 punch from which it can doubtfully recover in the foreseeable future.
Few Israelis symbolized more potently the opposition to Olmert's vision, not only in terms of his prognosis, but also in terms of his diagnosis, which is - or was - that Israel's very possession of the West Bank had become a Zionist liability. Having said this, Lieberman's entry into the coalition will be remembered as the symptom rather than the cause of the latest developments in the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The morning after Israel's departure from Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas had the historic opportunity to get down to the business of building there an oasis. He squandered that opportunity, thus creating the vacuum into which Hamas was sucked. Had Abu-Mazen risen to the occasion, Gaza would have prospered, its inhabitants would have been cooler to Hamas, Hamas would have had more difficulty to wage its attacks, Olmert's coalition would have needed no expansion, and Lieberman would be in position to join it.
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As in often the case, the addition of Yisrael Beitenu and of Minister Avigdor Lieberman to the government headed by Ehud Olmet has both domestic political and wider policy objectives. In the domestic dimension, with a weak coalition, falling support in the polls and the potential defection of Labor Party members in key budget votes, Olmert needed to expand the margin in his coalition, and Yisrael Beitenu seems to provide this, at least for now. And in terms of international policy, Lieberman's new position as Minister for Strategic Affairs is a signal to Iran's leadership, and to the rest of the world, of the consequences resulting from the failure to stop Ahmadinejad's efforts to make nuclear weapons.
As a result, the link to the Palestinian issue is tertiary, at best. If any realistic basis for compromise and cooperation with the Palestinians existed, the appointment of Lieberman and Yisrael
Beitenu might have been described as signaling a shift to a "hard line" position, perhaps even to the right of Likud and Netanyahu.
But with Hamas in control of the Palestinian government, while fighting a civil war with Fatah factions headed ostensibly by President Abbas, and ongoing terror and rejectionism (led from Damascus by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal), the chances for improvement in relations with Israel are essentially non-existent.
In this framework, the old terminology of "Left" and "Right" in Israeli politics has lost any meaning. After the Oslo process ended in a mass terror campaign, and disengagement also failed to provide significant benefits, what is left of the Left has nothing serious to offer, and the same is true for the Right, other than maintaining the painful status quo. If and when this changes, Israeli political leaders and the Israeli public can reconsider the options.
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Postulating the effect that the entry of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party into the government will have on the peace process is definitely a case of putting the egg before the chicken.
Yisrael Beitenu is able to join the Olmert government at this point simply because in the immediate post-Hizbullah war period, as is evident to pretty much everybody outside of Condoleezza Rice and Javiar Solana, the odds of currently making forward progress along the Palestinian or Syrian tracks runs the gamut from zero-to-none.
Lieberman's position in the cabinet, especially in a ministerial role that seems a strictly advisory position on an issue (Iran) in which there is across-the-board consensus, will have no impact whatsoever on an already stalled diplomatic process.
Too much has already been made of the Lieberman appointment; there seems to be a collective amnesia among some politicians and commentators that Yisrael Beitenu has already sat in a government to no great effect, and that was before its recent move to the center after breaking its ties to the National Union.
So one shouldn't take this as much more that a political maneuver on the prime minister's part to temporarily shore up his government, or even that it means he has given up on carrying out a second disengagement if the circumstances turn more favorable toward such a move.
As for Lieberman himself, however questionable some of his policies, give him credit for choosing to focus his own efforts on what is unquestionably Israel's most dire existential threat, the prospect that Mahmoud Ahmadinijad will have his finger on a nuclear trigger.
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I don't think Lieberman's entry into the government will much affect the peace process. If, and when, the prime minister decides that it is time for negotiations, he is not going to be constrained by Yisrael Beiteinu's presence. Nor will the international community be deterred from pushing the process merely because of Lieberman and his colleagues.
When the time is right, Olmert will move and Lieberman will have to decide whether he will stay or go.
The main effect of Lieberman's new role will be the damage it does to Israel's image abroad. Here in the US, Israel's core of supporters continues to dwindle with young Jews being the least emotionally committed to Israel. That may even be an overstatement.
Most young Jews are as involved with Israel about as much as with, say, Italy or New Zealand. Israel is just another foreign country to most of them.
The inclusion in the government of a party widely considered racist would estrange many of the young Jews who do feel a connection to Israel.
Israel's image will suffer across the board. For those to whom it matters what the world thinks of Israel, this will be significant for many reasons including the weakening of the US-Israel relationship. For those who pretend that what the world thinks does not matter, they will feel even more urgency to keep pretending.
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The entry of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party into the coalition government will have no effect on the peace process for the simple reason that there is no peace process.
Israel is surrounded by enemies who are busy arming for the next round of confrontation - chief among them Hamas. So to speak of a "peace process" at this point is akin to little more than wishful thinking.
What is, however, truly disconcerting about the entry of Mr. Lieberman into the government is the McCarthyism of the Left that it has engendered in its wake, as various figures seek to outdo each other in demeaning and delegitimizing him and his party.
Indeed, people such as outgoing Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor party have reached new lows of hypocrisy in labeling Lieberman a "racist". After all, Paz-Pines and his comrades were among the most outspoken supporters of expelling people from Gaza last year based solely on their national, ethnic and religious identity. What could possibly be more racist than to say that Jews should not be allowed to live in a certain area because they are Jews?
So for Paz-Pines and others like him to now invoke the "race card" in denouncing Mr. Lieberman is as absurd as it is shameful.
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Every time anything happens in Israel, Israelis always seem to ask themselves and everyone else who will listen, how will this affect the peace process?
It is an interesting exercise and events, such as the entry of Avigdor Lieberman and his party into the coalition, make excellent fodder for discussion. There may be excellent reasons for keeping Lieberman out of the cabinet, but this debate has nothing to do with the actual chances of advancing the peace process.
Israel can veer left or right. Its governments can dedicate themselves to withdrawal or to standing pat but the notion that either stance has much to do with progress towards peace is fallacious.
It is the Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, that have the power to decide for peace or war, not the Israelis. The past 13 years since the Oslo debacle have proved this. No concession or demonstrated expression of goodwill will convince Palestinians to make peace if they believe it violates their sensibilities, as it apparently does. And so long as the political and religious culture of the Palestinians dictates that the existence of Israel, within any borders and under any leadership, is the source of tension, then there will be no real progress toward peace.
This is a difficult concept for many Israelis to grasp. The belief in their ability to create a peace process where none seems possible is perhaps rooted in a Zionist ethos that celebrated taming the environment in order to make the land habitable. It is one thing to drain the swamps (even though environmentalists now take a dim view of such activity) but it is hubris for Israelis to imagine that the lack of peace can be blamed on their own behavior or even the composition of their cabinet.
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His entry will have no effect. Lieberman or no Lieberman, there is little that can be done to facilitate fruitful negotiations. The mantra happens to be true: There is no Palestinian partner.
An Abu Mazen who could deliver an end to terrorism, and a Palestinian Authority capable of adhering to its existing bilateral and international commitments would find an Israeli government even one that includes Lieberman forthcoming and creative.
Lieberman or no Lieberman, we can't help Abu Mazen if he won't help himself.
What peace process is that which Lieberman might disturb? With the level of hostility of our enemies, the last on my list of worries is that we can't make peace. This isn't a neighborhood for wimps. I liked his self-effacing humor in a recent TV interview.
If anything real comes along, none of our politicians is going to miss the opportunity to make peace. The credibility of those dangling so-called peace offerings has to be called into question. I think Lieberman would be an excellent negotiator.
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Since there are hardly any chances for a meaningful peace process in the foreseeable future, Lieberman's entry into the government will have very little impact on it. But given his authoritarian and strident views, his presence in the government will do enormous harm to the international standing of Israel, embarrass Israel's friends, make many Jews abroad uncomfortable and further alienate Israeli Arabs.
That Labor decided to stay in the government will haunt it for a long time: Ophir Paz-Pines's decision to leave the government is a courageous step, and it's a pity that so few of his colleagues are ready to follow in his steps.
There is no peace process to speak of. Ehud Olmert and his government have not demonstrated any intention of beginning a peace process. Olmert has continually promised to implement Israel's Road Map commitments made by him personally to President Bush and he has not acted on any of them.
Olmert also promised to meet with Palestinian President Abbas and has reneged on that promise as well. Labor "leader" Amir Peretz has been equally disappointing and only found the time to meet with Abbas when he was on the campaign trail in order to get the Arab vote.
Paradoxically, Peretz now has an opportunity to move ahead with a peace process and get rid of Lieberman at the same time - it is quite simple - all Peretz needs to do is to implement the decisions of the government and the Talya Sasson report and to dismantle the dozens of illegal outposts. This would send a clear message that the rule of law is above the rule of the settlers, it would push Lieberman out of the government and would begin a process that could help rebuild a partnership with the Palestinians.
Perhaps Leiberman's presence on the government will act as a stimulant to do the right thing.
No negotiations, no peace
Arab-Israeli diplomacy has been effectively moribund since the Barak and Clinton terms simultaneously expired in early 2001, despite all efforts to revive it, both by Middle East leaders (such as Syria's Bashar al-Assad) and foreign diplomats (such as America's Philip Zelikow).
One consistency underlying Ariel Sharon's deeply inconsistent foreign policy was his lack of interest in negotiating with Arabs, an attitude subsequently inherited by the Olmert government.
In brief, there was minimal Israeli inclination to return to the bargaining table even before Yisrael Beitenu joined the governing coalition. Now that Yisrael Beitenu has a say in making Israeli policy, the prospect of negotiations is even more remote.
And a personal anecdote: Just before publishing my article, "Israel's Wayward Prime Ministers"
in June 2004, I had a chance to present its thesis to Avigdor Lieberman, that four Israeli prime ministers in a row - Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon - had deceived the electorate by promising while campaigning to be tough with the Arabs and then, when in office, adopting a unexpectedly concessionary approach. To this, Lieberman replied, "Not me, not when I become prime minister."
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I call our new Deputy Prime Minister 'Loose Cannon Lieberman.'
But I don't think his entry into the government will much affect Ehud Olmert's policies - not that I really understand what Olmert's policies are these days. As for "peace process" - there is no such thing and never was.
I have the sense that Lieberman has not got clear right-wing attitudes. He's certainly not a Jabotinskyite with as clear ideology.
I don't think he has the intellectual wherewithal to be convincing at the Cabinet. But the situation may yet change. We shall see.
Shmuel Katz was a leader of the Irgun, a member of the first Knesset and a biographer of Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
The entrance of Avigdor Lieberman into the government will not make one iota of difference with respect to the peace process with the Palestinians. Indeed the question is based on two flawed premises: (1) that there is a peace process with the Palestinians, if by peace process we mean a process that could actually result in some peace agreement being signed that has some reasonable chance of being adhered to; and (2) that Israeli actions can do much, in the current climate of Palestinian public opinion, to create such a process.
As long as 67% of Palestinians support Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel, and almost equally large majorities support rocket attacks on Israeli cities and suicide bombings directed at Israeli citizens, and an even larger percentage support the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, there can be no process.
When will the possibility for such a process exist? When Palestinians start spending the unparalleled largesse of the international community on development projects, tearing down refugee camps, etc., rather than on guns and bullets and maintaining 50,000 armed men in their various "security" services - in short, when they show more interest in creating their own state and in their own material advance than they do in destroying Israel.
In the meantime, the only thing the Israeli government - any government, whether with Lieberman or without - is to wait, and continue to act forcefully to prevent Gaza or the West Bank from developing into the next Hizbullahlands.
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What peace process? Are we speaking of the Machiavelian importation of a terrorist organization from Tunisia so that it, and its associated gangsters, could have a free hand do the dirty job against Hamas that Israel lacked the stomach to do? Are we referring to the bloody Oslo process as a "peace process"?
Or do we recall that before Oslo we actually had a gradual but very promising, real peace process developing, which our genius politicians destroyed by insisting on a "political solution"?
True, before Oslo we did not have a piece of paper announcing the advent of peace. But we did have hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers making such a good living in Israel - and many thousand of Israelis securely shopping and eating in Arab towns - that Arab standard of living skyrocketed, the status of women and children greatly improved and there were remarkable advances in every other sphere of Palestinian life.
Sure the Palestinians did not like the occupation, who does? But they apparently benefited enough from it that for two decades they accommodated themselves to it and did not engage in terrorism or support it.
Now look at the post Oslo reality, compare and decide, in simple terms of human welfare and prosperity, which period was better?
In "civilized" Europe it was not peace processing that buried centuries of deadly animosities but economic developments that made them irrelevant. It could happen in a savage Middle East too if we stop relying on troublesome muddleheaded and dangerous politicians (by convincing Europe and the US to stop funding these thieves and murderers, and getting rid of our corrupt lot) and permit instead economic reality to assert itself again.
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