(photo credit: Ahikam Seri/Bloomberg)
The government must still approve the proposed agreement to freeze settlement
construction in the West Bank in exchange for a US offer of $3 billion worth of
military hardware, including stealth fighters. If Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu succeeds in obtaining cabinet approval, the parties will have 90 days
to focus primarily on reaching an agreement on borders. Only an agreement on
borders would enable negotiations to proceed by delineating which of the
settlements will be incorporated into Israel, and which would not. The
resumption of construction would then be limited to those areas that are
considered part of Israel.
The success or failure of the Obama
administration’s peacemaking effort hinges on whether or not sufficient progress
is made to induce the Palestinian and Israeli leadership to continue with the
negotiations beyond the 90-day freeze.
Unfortunately, the likelihood that
such an accord will be reached is slim. Any agreement would require major
concessions on the part of both sides. However, it is unclear whether the
current government can muster a three-month settlement freeze, albeit in
exchange for a most compelling American offer, and then agree on a border that
relinquishes 95 percent or more of the West Bank. Shas and Israel Beiteinu will
object, as will rightwing rebels within the Likud who are appealing to Shas to
oppose rather than abstain from the cabinet vote. Shas has stated that it
will only abstain if it obtains a letter from the US ensuring that construction
can resume in Jerusalem, and that the freeze would not be renewed on the 91st
day. With such coalition partners, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be
optimistic about the prospects for genuine movement toward peace.
SKEPTICS sadly prove to be correct and efforts to negotiate a border agreement
fail, it is clear that the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, must
leave the government in an effort to induce a reconfiguration of the political
landscape. Barak has long since lost his luster. He may think of himself as
Israel’s savior, but he is not. As long as Barak remains in this government, he
serves as a fig leaf for a dead-end, right-wing coalition that ideologically
opposes making the kind of far-reaching compromises necessary. Of course, Barak
has stated that his presence in the government has kept the peace process alive.
A failure to reach a border agreement would expose this fallacy. In fact, Barak
has become a liability to the peace process.
A poll last week by Yediot
indicated that if elections were held today with Barak leading Labor,
the party would lose eight seats, from the current 13 to a paltry and irrelevant
five. However, if Avishay Braverman led the party, it would receive 14 seats,
with Isaac Herzog, 17, and if Gabi Ashkenazi entered politics to lead Labor, it
could obtain as many as 23.
In a letter from Barak to the Labor Party
steering committee responding to the surge in calls for him to leave the
government and emergence of challengers to his party leadership, he wrote, “It
would be a tragic mistake to abandon the campaign for peace at this time and to
lead Israel into a state of international isolation.” However, his continued
presence in a government that is decidedly uncommitted to a two-state solution
has and will continue to further that isolation.
If he leaves, Netanyahu
would be left with a weak right-wing coalition with little military experience
and even weaker diplomatic relations with the Americans. In this sense,
Barak’s exit could be critical to ameliorating the political landscape and to
eventually forming a government capable of delivering a peace
THE ONLY way to reverse the trend of isolation and to place
the peace process on track would be to revamp the current governing coalition.
This would require a strengthened core of moderate, capable leadership found in
elements of the Likud, Kadima and Labor. Such new leadership could
achieve a number of things that the current government is either not able or
willing to undertake.
First, it could restore the US’s confidence in its
relationship with Israel. The bad chemistry between Barack Obama and Netanyahu
may not be reparable – especially following Netanyahu’s highly publicized
meeting with the new Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, after which
Cantor noted he would serve as a “check” against the administration. However,
beyond Netanyahu’s own behavior, his partners’ efforts to oppose the president
and his initiatives, let alone promote settlement projects, have significantly
damaged confidence between Washington and Jerusalem. Its restoration would
provide a new government with the necessary crutch to make concessions for a
peace agreement. New leadership would also strengthen coordination with
the US on a range of critical issues, including Lebanon, Iran and
Second, a new government would restore some of the trust with the
Palestinians and the leading Arab states. Very few Arab leaders believe
the Netanyahu government is capable or willing to make required concessions for
a two-state solution. This basic distrust cannot be mitigated without a new
government that is not wed to the settlement movement. Without a marked change
in the makeup of the government, it is less likely that states like Saudi Arabia
would even consider taking steps to normalize relations. But a change could spur
a change in Arab attitudes.
Third, a new government would give the
international campaign to isolate Israel some respite, while relations with the
EU member states could dramatically improve. Shas’s chokehold on progress in the
current coalition exemplifies the dilemma. A limited settlement freeze cannot be
pursued unless Shas abstains. Shas is led by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose regular
outlandish remarks reached a new low recently when he stated in a sermon that
non-Jews “were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in
the world – only to serve the people of Israel.” Removing the significant
influence he now wields would only help international relations.
a new government could put the Palestinians – and the Arab states that support
them – to the test by changing the growing international perception that Israel
is the obstacle to peace. Who can blame those who say it does not want peace?
Just last week Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters that he does
not think Israel should pursue peace with Syria and he remains staunchly opposed
to even a very brief settlement freeze. That Israel may only be able to pass
this freeze with significant US incentives further underscores the perception
that it is not interested in genuine peacemaking.
Finally, a revamped
coalition could begin to prepare the public for the eventuality of a two-state
solution. It must be disabused of the notion of the tie between national
security and occupation of the Palestinian land. The current government has
reinforced this notion. What is needed are honest and experienced leaders who
can provide leadership in both the diplomatic and security realms, while laying
the groundwork for a peace agreement that would ensure national
The choice to change the current government ultimately lies
with Netanyahu. The catalyst for change, however, should be Barak. He must
recognize that by resigning from the government – and his leadership of the
Labor Party – he could set in motion a political realignment that could create a
path toward the peace agreement that he purports to seek. He must be the first
to place the national interest above his political ambition, and in turn force
Netanyahu to follow his lead.
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