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Coalition consequences
ByLESLIE SUSSER
January 9, 2013 12:05
The big question in these elections seems to be not whether Netanyahu wins, but what coalition he puts together.
bibi speaking 521

bibi speaking 521. (photo credit:RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

It is just weeks before the Israeli election and at last someone has noticed the elephant in the room.

The Palestinian issue has loomed large in every Israeli election since 1967. This time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich have been acting in tandem to play it down: Netanyahu because although he has endorsed the two-state solution most of his Likud- Beytenu party colleagues reject it; Yacimovich because she is running an almost exclusively socioeconomic campaign and, with an electorate that has visibly shifted to the right, doing her best to jettison Labor’s “peacenik” image.

But, in late December, a vocal extra-parliamentary advocacy group pushes Likud and Labor out of their respective comfort zones. Blue White Future, which holds that without a two-state solution Israel will have to sacrifice either its Jewish or its democratic character, challenges the six leading Zionist parties to clarify their positions on what it sees as the key to Israel’s future – resolving or managing the conflict with the Palestinians.

The venue: Tel Aviv University. For an issue supposedly under the election radar, it generates huge on-campus interest. The lecture hall is far too small to accommodate the large crowd jostling for places inside. Most are forced to follow the proceedings on a large TV screen hastily erected outside.

The timing is particularly apt. The Palestinians have just been accorded UN recognition as a non-member state, and there are signs that the US and Europe are losing patience with what they see as the Netanyahu government’s stalling tactics over the two-state solution.

Moreover, all the big issues – the nature of the Israeli state, the level of Palestinian terror, the economy, Israel’s place in the region and its place in the world – are connected to what it does or doesn’t do to resolve the Palestinian conflict.

The first speaker is the surprise packet of these elections, 40-year-old high-tech whiz kid Naftali Bennett, the newly installed leader of the far-right national religious Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), which has been gaining steadily at the Likud’s expense.

Bennett, a former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlers’ Council, is the quintessential representative of the West Bank settlers. His party’s core purpose is to prevent the two-state solution. He assumes Netanyahu will be reelected prime minister and argues that only a strong Bayit Yehudi will prevent him from caving in to pressure for a peace deal that would entail withdrawing from the West Bank and dismantling settlements. “If you want a nationalist Netanyahu, not a two-state Netanyahu, vote for the Bayit Yehudi,” party slogans read.

With his small knitted skullcap literally hanging by a thread, the prematurely balding Bennett outlines his plan for the West Bank: He would annex area C, which includes all the Jewish settlements and is already under full Israeli administrative control, and allow a degree of Palestinian autonomy in areas A and B, which are already under Palestinian civil control (A is under Palestinian security control, B under Israeli security control).

According to Bennett, area C has close to 400,000 Jewish settlers and only 48,000 Palestinians.

Once it is annexed to Israel, those Palestinians would be entitled to opt for full Israeli citizenship. In areas A and B, where, according to Bennett, there are 1.8 million Palestinians and no Israelis, the Palestinians would run their own affairs in a framework short of statehood.

Bennett’s figures are not universally accepted.

Other estimates put the Jewish settler population at around 350,000 and the Palestinian population at between 100,000 and 150,000 in area C and around 2.6 million in areas A and B.

More importantly, Bennett’s plan would annex 60 percent of the West Bank to Israel and leave the Palestinians stateless in the remaining 40 percent. (By way of comparison, the various two-state plans give the Palestinians between 94 and 98 percent of the land with the remainder to be made up in land swaps.) “The world won’t accept this,” Bennett declares euphemistically.

“But we will be doing what’s good for Israel.’’ The Likud has sent Tzipi Hotovely, one of its more “ideological” hard-liners to the debate.

She smiles often but there is no humor in it. She claims dourly that the Likud’s plan is to keep all of the West Bank. “The land of Israel is the country of the Jewish people and we intend to stay there,” she declares. Moreover, she adds, compromising over the land would be self-defeating, since peace with the Palestinians is not possible. “The center-left is peddling illusions,” she insists. “The Palestinians will never give up the right of return and Hamas will never recognize Israel.” But she says nothing about how the Palestinians will be treated in this one-state reality or about what will happen when they become the majority.

Other radical Likud right-wingers have been floating ideas on the subject. Moshe Feiglin, for example, suggests paying Palestinian families $500,000 each to emigrate. And Dani Danon talks about a “three-state solution,” in which Israel, Jordan and Egypt divide up Palestinian land between them – Israel taking most of the West Bank and ceding the rest to Jordan, with Gaza going to Egypt.

Although he claims to support the two-state solution, Netanyahu has never outlined any clear plan. Moreover, he refuses to commit to the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps as the basis for territorial negotiations – the minimum Palestinian demand accepted by the international community and previous Israeli governments. And even if Netanyahu wanted to move forward toward the two-state model it is doubtful whether he could, given the hardline composition of Likud-Beytenu’s Knesset list.

Of the first 35 Knesset candidates only three, Netanyahu, Tzachi Hanegbi and Carmel Shama-Hacohen nominally support the two-state solution. Tellingly, there is no mention of the two-state solution in official party documents. Moreover, in the runup to the election, the Likud has been taking increasingly hardline positions in a bid to staunch the seepage of seats to Bennett’s Jewish home. All this could factor into post-election government policy.

Labor’s delegate at the Tel Aviv University parley, former government minister Yitzhak Herzog, is more circumspect than he would normally be because of the party’s endeavor not to appear too dovish. A year ago, he proposed that Israel back a Palestinian appeal to the UN for membership on condition that it lead to negotiations on borders between the two states. Now he says the only way to go forward is through small interim steps, without broaching the core issues.

Nevertheless, couched, almost hidden, in careful language, he makes a radical proposal for breaking the current deadlock. What it boils down to is this: The government should recognize a Palestinian state, hand over some territory and start negotiating final borders on the basis of the Clinton parameters of December 2000, which provide upper and lower limits for agreement on all the core issues.

Indeed, Labor’s election platform includes the adoption of the Clinton parameters as a means of bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. By refusing to make a similar move, Herzog argues that Netanyahu is not giving the Palestinians any incentive to negotiate. “Time is not on our side. By procrastinating we could end up losing the big settlement blocs,” he warns.

For Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua (The Movement), it is all a question of leadership. “If Yitzhak Rabin had lived, we would have had a permanent settlement endorsed by the international community, and today Israel would have been a very different country,” says former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who has defected from Labor to Livni’s party, partly because of her prioritization of the Palestinian issue.

Indeed, Livni’s main election message is that the Bibi-Liberman duo will lead Israel to disaster, whereas she would give it a chance for peace. In other words, peace is there for the taking. All it requires is an act of Israeli leadership. “In Mahmoud Abbas there is a Palestinian leader who is almost begging to sit down and talk and the Netanyahu government says no. They pushed him into going to the UN. We should make immediate goodwill gestures, get the Arab League on board and get the peace process rolling,” says Peretz.

Burly bespectacled Rabbi Shai Peron, No. 2 on Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid list, wants to have it both ways. The occupation he insists is a Jewish moral issue, but he is in no hurry to deal with it. He wants to reactivate the peace process, but is not ready to divide Jerusalem, without which the Palestinians will not agree to reengage. “The way people are voting shows that the two-state issue is not their top priority,” he declares.

Meretz leader Zahava Galon sees a Manichean struggle between good and evil, between two visions of what Israel should be: one democratic, at peace with its neighbors and welcomed by the international community, the other ethnocentric, racist and immoral and cast out by the rest of the world. “What the right is proposing is that we go on living by the sword, not reaching a compromise and allowing the emergence of a binational state that turns into an apartheid state, leading us into international isolation. And that, Tzipi Hotovely, will be on your heads,” she warns.

The turning point in the election comes a week later when President Shimon Peres declares in a meeting with Israeli diplomats that Abbas is someone with whom an agreement can be reached. Likud Knesset candidates slam him for abusing his high office to interfere in the election. But suddenly, the real issues are being discussed, in the headlines, the columns and by the politicians.

Four days later, Yacimovich makes a major campaign move.

She drops her one-track socioeconomic approach and wades into Likud-Beytenu for the antipeace and anti-democratic composition of its Knesset list and the fact that its No. 2 man, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, is under indictment for fraud and breach of trust. This is not the Likud of old, she says.

And she draws an operative conclusion, which changes the face of the election. Under no circumstances, she says, will she sit in a Netanyahu-led government.

“There are only two alternatives,” she says. “Either I form the next government, or I lead the opposition.” Hours later Lapid announces that he will not be the only centrist party in a Netanyahu government that includes Bennett and the ultra-Orthodox.

Livni follows up with a call to Yacimovich and Lapid to join her in forming a united front against Netanyahu. At last the center-left seems to be responding to Netanyahu’s move to unify the right through his electoral pact with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. The message to centerleft voters is that if they don’t give up and turn out in droves, the election could still be won.

But there is another more realistic strategy: If, as is widely expected, Netanyahu wins, the center-left parties would either join his coalition as a single agenda-setting bloc or stay out together and leave him and his natural rightwing/ religious allies to stew in their own juice.

The weak link is Lapid. He refuses to rule out joining Netanyahu and questions the idea of declaring a united front.

Nevertheless, the upshot is that if Netanyahu wins the election, he will have very problematic coalition choices. He might have to bring in the entire center-left on its terms – commitment to a realistic peace process, drafting yeshiva students and a budget based on more social spending and higher taxes on the rich – or be stuck with a far-right/ultra-Orthodox coalition, which stifles peace moves and domestic reforms, jeopardizes democratic values and invites international opprobrium.

This was not what Netanyahu had planned.

He had hoped to be able to form a coalition with Bayit Yehudi and/or Shas and then split the center-left by bringing in one or two of its three parties on his terms. The idea would have been to give his government a semblance of respectability with no real peacemaking intent and keep the international community off his back. In the current government he used Ehud Barak as the center-left fig leaf.

This time he might not have that luxury.

Given the center-left gambit, Netanyahu will have four broad coalition options:

• Likud-Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, for a total of around 61-66 Knesset seats. Such a government would make no moves towards accommodation with the Palestinians, would pass an austerity budget and might promote anti-democratic legislation, for example, moves to inhibit the Supreme Court.

• Likud Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas, Yesh Atid and Hatnua for a total of around 80 seats.

The problem is Yesh Atid won't want to sit with Shas and Hatnua won't want to sit with Bayit Yehudi.

• Likud-Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid, for a total of 61 plus seats, assuming the three parties do well enough. Yesh Atid, the weak link in the center-left front, might join such a coalition without Shas, on the promise of legislation to draft Yeshiva students, change the electoral system and a budget that taxes the rich not the middle class. Here, too, there would be no movement on the Palestinian track.

• Likud-Beytenu, Labor, Hatnua and Yesh Atid, for a total of around 70 seats, with an agenda that includes all the above plus a genuine attempt to negotiate a two-state solution.

The trouble with this last scenario is that Netanyahu already had the chance to pursue it with Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz last May, but chose not to. So why would he now? There is one other remote possibility. That the polls have it wrong and Netanyahu loses.

Most polls give Likud-Beytenu between 33 and 37 seats, and the right-wing/religious bloc a clear majority. But some question polling methodologies, for example, the fact that young people with cellphones aren’t being polled. But if the polls are there or thereabouts, the center-left would need a swing of around five percent between now and election day, very unlikely, or to have Shas, miffed at Netanyahu and Liberman’s insinuations about its responsibility for high housing prices and other barbs, backing the center-left to form the next government – even less likely, given its fiercely right-wing electorate.

So although Likud-Beytenu continues to leak seats, the big question in these elections seems to be not whether Netanyahu wins, but what coalition he puts together to deal with the enormous challenges Israel faces. The importance of his choice for the future of the Zionist enterprise cannot be overestimated.

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