The Israeli election did not bring peace with the Palestinians any closer, but
it may keep it from slipping farther away.
It’s no secret that Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu showed a preference for building settlements instead
building peace, and the Palestinians, playing their own game of delay and
obfuscation, weren’t about to challenge him to back up his rhetorical support
for a two-state solution with tangible action.
Only two of the 12 parties
that will be in the 19th Knesset campaigned on a peace platform and they won
only six (of 120) mandates each, a clear indication of what wasn’t on voters’
minds. In fact, this was the first election since the 1967 war that peace with
the Arabs was not a major issue.
Hopes were raised, however, by the
surprisingly strong showing of a new centrist party whose leader said he would
only join a government committed to restarting peace talks with the
Yair Lapid, a former television journalist, started Yesh
Atid (There Is A Future) not to campaign for peace but in response to the
massive social protests in 2011, and his major themes were increasing
expenditures on social welfare, raising taxes on the rich, cutting defense
spending, ending draft exemptions for the ultra-religious and refocusing housing
construction from the West Bank to inside the Green Line to help bring down
He is neither a hawk nor a dove, but a pragmatic
moderate and secularist who believes in the two-state solution, opposes dividing
Jerusalem, supports Israel’s retention of the major settlement blocks and thinks
its time for serious talks with the Palestinians.
As Netanyahu cobbles
together a coalition for his third term (the first was 1996-1999), his choice of
partners will indicate the direction he wants to lead his country not only on
critical domestic issues – housing, taxes, social welfare – but also its
relations with the Palestinians, the Americans and the Europeans.
LEADING contenders for senior partner are Lapid’s Yesh Atid (19 seats) and the
far-right Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party (12 seats) led by Naftali Bennett, a
former Netanyahu aide who opposes Palestinian statehood, has close alliances
with the ultra-religious and settlers, and wants to annex most of the West Bank.
The third largest party, Labor (15 mandates) intends to lead the
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration prefers Lapid,
hoping his presence in the government will open opportunities to ease tensions
in the relationship and restart peace talks.
But the president doesn’t
have high hopes, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote recently in The
Atlantic that when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians, Obama
views Netanyahu “as a political coward... unwilling to lead.”
Kerry (D-Massachusetts) said at his confirmation hearings last week that shortly
after he is sworn in as secretary of state and the new Netanyahu government
takes office he plans to go to Israel to meet with the new leadership and
attempt to revive the peace process because he feels it would be “disastrous” to
fail to reach a two-state agreement.
Obama has given no indication since
the election nor in his inaugural address whether the Middle East will be a high
second- term priority, though he may have something to say in his state of the
union address on February 12. Whatever his plans, events have a way of changing
them. Just ask his predecessors.
The president may be happy just to turn
over the Israel portfolio to Kerry (a Catholic whose Jewish grandparents
converted in 19th-century Europe and changed their name from Kohn to Kerry in
the face of intense anti-Semitism), but he should avoid the
Some Jewish leaders feel Obama made a serious mistake not
going to Israel during his first term and whether he thinks it is time to try to
revive the peace talks or not, he should go there as soon as the new government
is in place. He didn’t go in his first term, reportedly concerned that such a
visit would only bolster Netanyahu. His absence had the opposite effect, letting
Netanyahu set him up as the foe he would protect Israel from.
It is in
both countries’ interest that the two leaders make peace. And while he’s there,
Obama needs to take a page from Netanyahu’s playbook and speak directly to the
Knesset and the Israeli people, let them see and meet him in Israel and hear
directly from him about his demonstrated commitment to Israel’s well-being and
his vision for peace in the region. He should also meet the new government, and
establish relations with those who will be the next generation of
OBAMA CAN’T try to force Netanyahu to return to the peace table,
but he can point out that if the United States puts the issue on a back burner,
as the prime minister apparently prefers, he should understand that the
Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations would be only too anxious to move
in and try to fill the leadership vacuum.
They have been highly critical
of what they see as Israeli intransigence and are said to be losing patience
with what they consider Netanyahu’s stalling tactics. Also, none has a domestic
political constituency to counter those governments’ pro-Palestinian
There is no peace process with the Palestinians and won’t be
one unless Netanyahu is pushed, and not by Obama, but by his new coalition
partners, Israeli public opinion and a Palestinian leadership that can convince
the Israeli public it is serious and worth taking risks for.
Douglas M. Bloomfield firstname.lastname@example.org