(photo credit: GPO)
It's hard to understand why President Shimon Peres, of all people, should be so keen on a government of national unity. His call on Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu to form as wide a government as possible ignores his own bitter experience of serving as a fig leaf for the Likud in the mid-1980s, when the country first experimented with a national unity government. Tzipi Livni must ignore the desperate craving of some of her Kadima colleagues to cling on to their ministerial chairs and insist on taking Kadima into the opposition.
It is not the job of the Center-Left to save the Right from itself. The election clearly gave the Right a mandate to govern, and so it should be given its chance, despite the disastrous effect this will no doubt have on the country. The presence of Avigdor Lieberman as a senior (foreign?) minister around the cabinet table, and the Kahanist Michael Ben-Ari as a member of the coalition, paints an ugly picture, but it is one that the country's citizens have chosen. We can all remember how Israel protested when Jorg Haider's Freedom Party joined the ruling Austrian coalition; now, unfortunately, we need to prepare ourselves to be on the receiving end of similar, and valid, criticism. No doubt those on the self-deluding Right will even manage to label this criticism as anti-Semitic.
One can only hope that the Right's proven inability to grasp the fact that reality is stronger than ideology, and that compromise is a necessary function of government, will ensure an early end to Netanyahu's second term as prime minister.
If Livni makes the mistake of coming to Netanyahu's rescue now, and accepting blurred government guidelines, the electorate will not thank her in four years' time, as Peres learned to his cost.
IN 1984, PERES, then leader of the Labor Party, headed the first national unity government, in rotation with Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir. That government had two major problems to solve: hyperinflation and the First Lebanon War, in which the country had become bogged down. Both these problems, needless to say, had been caused by the rash policies of the previous Likud government under Menachem Begin. Under Peres's determined leadership, for which he never received the credit he was due, the government crafted an economic recovery plan that saved the economy, while in Lebanon, the IDF cut its losses and retreated to the security zone.
But Peres's reward for saving the country in his two years as prime minister was only to save Shamir's political skin and allow him to form another unity government in 1988, this time without rotation. In fact, Labor only returned to power after it had spent two years in opposition, and the nation could see where Shamir and the Likud were leading it.
Indeed, Shamir's main "accomplishment" as prime minister was foiling the 1987 London Agreement, in the second unity government, when Peres served as Shamir's foreign minister. This agreement, signed in secret by Peres and Jordan's King Hussein, outlined the framework for an international peace conference on the Middle East, hosted by the United Nations, in which the Palestinians would be represented by the Jordanian delegation, thereby excluding the PLO. Shamir, fearful of the "Jordanian option" in which Jordan would take over sovereignty of the West Bank, opposed the agreement and scuttled it.
Six months later, the first intifada broke out, to be followed in 1988 with Hussein's announcement that Jordan was relinquishing any sovereignty ambitions over the West Bank, thus paving the way for the eventual return of Yasser Arafat to the territories. Ironically, in 1991, Shamir did agree to an international peace conference in Madrid, held under terms similar to those earlier negotiated by Peres, but with a more dominant Palestinian presence.
SHAMIR ONLY agreed to the Madrid conference due to heavy pressure from the US, and Netanyahu is only too well aware that he is likely to face similar pressure from the Obama administration. Gone are the days in which a government could solemnly promise George W. Bush to remove all the illegal outposts in the West Bank and then do exactly nothing. In fact, it is more than likely that we'll see a return to the days of George H. Bush's presidency, and the arguments over US loan guarantees, with Washington deducting large sums of money from the balance of its loan guarantees because of Jerusalem's investments in the settlements.
Recent reports suggest that the US may cut $1 billion from the remaining balance of $4.6 billion extended in 2003 in the wake of the war in Iraq and to help shore up the economy following the second intifada. Now, with the global economic crisis raging, the guarantees have assumed an even greater importance because of the Finance Ministry's intention to use them to secure foreign loans to help pay for the expected budget deficit. This will be the easiest pressure tactic for Obama to use against Netanyahu, and one which will hurt.
Netanyahu is well aware of this. He has often said that the mistake of his first premiership was not inviting Labor to form a national unity government. Such a coalition would have saved him from the Bar-On-Hebron scandal among others, and would have prevented the Right pulling down his coalition after the Wye Agreement. But having campaigned on the promise of forming a right-wing coalition, Netanyahu should stand by his word. It won't be pretty, but if Livni sticks to her statements not to join his government, her chance to put things right will come sooner, rather than later.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.