A vote for hope

Binyamin Netanyahu works to form a coalition

knesset 521 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
knesset 521
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
By the time this issue reaches our readers, Israelis will have already gone to the polls to elect the next Knesset and that even rougher sport known as “coalition wrangling” will be well underway.
This is where the president normally grants a mandate to the largest party to try and form a new coalition government, leaving all the smaller parties to extract demands and jockey for places around the cabinet table.
Yet nothing is ever “normal” in Israel and the coalition wheeling-and-dealing actually has been going on since the campaign started in November.
This election’s unique drama stems from the fact that the Israeli Left is still smarting from the last election, when Binyamin Netanyahu managed to block Tzipi Livni from becoming prime minister even though her Kadima faction won more seats than his Likud – 28 to 27. So the Left has been seeking to turn the tables by coaxing President Shimon Peres – who after all is one of their own – to choose the biggest winner from their ranks to form the next government.
Netanyahu anticipated this type of maneuvering early on and thus fielded a joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list to ensure against losing the premiership.
Still, Peres obliged the Left – but in his own way. Spurning calls to join the race as a last-minute savior of the Left, he nevertheless injected himself into the campaign by telling a recent gathering of ambassadors that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a genuine “partner for peace.”
The Right bristled at the veiled criticism that Israel was to blame for the lack of peace talks, and insisted that Peres should keep to his ceremonial role as president by representing the entire nation.
SEASONED AND WELL-PRESERVED at 89, Peres has always been known for his clever quips and off-the-cuff rhetorical style. His penchant for wisdom distilled in random one-liners can be quite remarkable. I once heard him say: “A good Jew is one who teaches his children to be good Jews” – what a perfectly circular definition! Yet in the case of Abbas, this is an instance where Peres has it wrong – and thankfully most Israelis know it.
Just a few days after Peres touted his peace credentials, Abbas gave a speech marking the anniversary of the founding of Fatah in which he employed some of his most militant rhetoric ever. He urged Palestinians “to renew an oath to the heroic martyrs and to walk in their path.” Based on the list of “heroic martyrs” lauded by Abbas, this “path” could only be one of armed struggle and terror.
He named not only prominent Fatah revolutionary figures of the past but also Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Fathi Shkaki of the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad terror militia. Abbas even reached back several generations to praise Mandate-era warlord Izzadin Kassam along with Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the notorious mufti of Jerusalem who openly sided with Hitler during the Holocaust.
Most Israelis have wised up to the mixed messages of Palestinian leaders like Abbas, who espouse peace in English but preach violence and Jew-hatred in Arabic.
So in that sense, Peres did have it right when he also told those foreign ambassadors last month that Israel is not a country divided between those for peace and those against peace, but a country of those who believe peace is attainable at present and those who do not.
This insightful maxim has been borne out by one opinion survey after another in which a strong 70 percent of Israelis truly want peace with the Palestinians and are willing to pay a steep price to achieve it, but in which that same broad consensus also doubts the Palestinians possess a similar desire to compromise for peace.
This healthy skepticism will also be expressed in the results of the 2013 elections, when Likud and the Right are expected to win another clear majority of Knesset seats and Netanyahu will have to set about to cobble together his new coalition.
The various factions are already setting their price for sitting in the next government – even before the votes are cast and counted. Netanyahu is expected to have to navigate through the incompatible demands and find creative ways to establish harmony within a broad coalition of parties – which he prefers.
Meanwhile, it is hard to fault Peres for devotedly hoping against hope for peace for as long as he can.
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org