Livni to the rescue?

There is one solution to the impasse with the US that hasn’t yet been tried.

By NERI ZILBER
March 21, 2010 22:31
Kadima head Tzipi Livni.

Livni 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)

With US-Israeli relations publicly acknowledged to be at their lowest point in decades, AIPAC’s annual conference set for this week in Washington will be a strong indicator of where the future of the relationship lies. Even AIPAC itself, the bulwark of the American pro-Israel community, has aired “deep concern” with how strained ties have become.

Politicians attending the conference – including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and opposition leader Tzipi Livni – will make a good showing of downplaying the differences. But even among Israel’s supporters in America, there is a growing unease with the direction of Israeli policy and the apparently flagrant indifference of the Netanyahu government to the requests of the Obama administration.

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Through its unwillingness to stop settlement construction and take the Palestinian problem seriously, the current Israeli government – right-wing, tone-deaf and paranoid – has brought about the current impasse with Washington. Prominent US officials have stated openly that the ongoing conflict is a strategic liability for America in the broader Middle East. Debatable though this point is, the fact that this linkage is even being made has to raise alarm bells in Israel.

Absent a serious about-face by Jerusalem, Israeli commentators have voiced concern that the coming year is likely to see an even greater estrangement from Washington.

FOR NEARLY all of the participants at the AIPAC conference, though, there is one solution that hasn’t yet been tried and that could, in fact, positively change the contours of the relationship going forward: bringing Livni’s Kadima party into the governing coalition.

Such a move would not just be for the good of the US-Israel relationship, but it would also benefit Netanyahu and Livni themselves. A broader coalition would also allow Israel as a whole to better engage with the larger challenges it faces, such as peace with the Arabs, the Iranian nuclear program, electoral reform, and more.

The context for this realignment has to begin with Israel’s political standing inside the US. Despite many on the right trying to paint the present impasse as a result of Obama’s “naïve” Middle East strategy, there is a palpable sense even among friends of Israel that the current direction is counterproductive – both with respect to Israel’s international legitimacy and long-term viability, as well as American interests in the region.

On a weekly, if not daily basis, news headlines across the world trumpet the latest Israeli misfire – whether it be a diplomatic spat with Turkey, an assassination in Dubai, the removal of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, or the announcement of building plans across the Green Line. The very public embarrassment of US Vice President Joe Biden earlier this month was simply the culmination of an ongoing trend.

The issue here is not whether international opprobrium directed at Israel is justified or not – in many cases it’s clearly being animated by something less than friendly intentions. Israel, though, simply can’t continue pretending like these developments don’t matter. They are “deeply negative,” as Hillary Clinton put it, while prominent American Jewish leaders have termed them “embarrassments.” Even pro-Israel members of the US Congress have been described as “deeply troubled” by Netanyhau’s actions.

BRINGING KADIMA into the coalition would not only change the external style and perception of the government, but it should also have a moderating effect on the substance of the policies being pursued (especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians).

Netanyahu himself is probably beginning to understand that he can’t afford to keep being pressured and blindsided by his right flank. Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s protestations to the contrary, it’s almost inevitable that other right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition will continue pursuing their own parochial and short-sighted agendas.

Which brings us to Tzipi Livni, the central player in all this. By all accounts the reason for Livni not entering the coalition has less to do with substantive policy differences, and everything to do with the openly hostile, antagonistic personal relationship she has with Netanyahu.

Yet Israeli history is replete with instances of formerly bitter adversaries joining forces, and indeed, it was Netanyahu who gave Livni her start in national politics. More to the point, Livni needs this just as much, if not more, than Netanyahu.

Livni and Kadima, not to mention the broader center-left opposition inside Israel, have over the past year become ever more marginalized. Netanyahu remains deeply popular, and the only headlines Livni herself makes are for periodic outbursts directed at the prime minister. Moreover, internal opposition against Livni from within her own party is growing, with Shaul Mofaz attempting to orchestrate both a leadership change and an entry into the government.

Livni’s strategy after last year’s election was to wait out the Netanyahu government: The expectation was that due to its own internal contradictions and outside (American) pressure, the coalition would crumble. It’s now long-past time for a rethink of this approach.

Netanyahu has shown himself adept at maneuvering and diffusing pressure, and in reality, there is an equal likelihood that Livni loses her own party before the government ever falls. In the words of Jeffrey Goldberg, hopefully Livni “puts Israel’s interests ahead of her own ambitions.”

Thus, the question American Jewish leaders, US officials, and neutral Israeli observers attending the AIPAC conference need to raise is this: Why doesn’t Kadima join the coalition? Obama needs it, Netanyahu needs it, Livni needs it, and most importantly, the US-Israel relationship needs it.

Real national unity inside Israel is the best way to preserve the unity of the special relationship between these two nations.

The writer is a freelance writer on international politics based in New York City. He was previously a writer and researcher specializing on the Middle East at the World Jewish Congress, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the US Library of Congress.


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