A house divided against itself

Can the prime minister’s quarrelsome coalition endure, given the sharp differences between its right and the center left?

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
The 50-day war in Gaza this summer left the Israeli government deeply divided over its significance.
The differences cut to the heart of a long-standing core argument between the right and the center-left over what constitutes security for Israel. The way the argument in its current form plays out will have major implications for Israel’s future in the Middle East.
For the right-wingers the war showed that peace with the Palestinians is not possible any time soon. They argue that especially now with the murderous Islamic State (IS) making inroads in Syria and Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra on the Golan, Hezbollah armed to the teeth in Lebanon and Hamas still in power on the ground in Gaza, Israel cannot afford to take chances with its security. There is no difference between IS and Hamas, they insist. Both hold Western values in disdain, both seek to establish an all-encompassing Islamic caliph - ate and both employ terror to achieve their ends.
Moreover, Hamas controls Gaza and is more popular than the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. If Israel were to with - draw in the context of a two-state peace deal, the West Bank would quickly turn into a Gaza-like Hamas base, replete with tunnels and rockets within spitting distance of Israel’s major population centers. And as for the supposedly moderate Palestinian Author - ity President Mahmoud Abbas, the right - wingers maintain that he does not really want peace. On the contrary, they say, he is waging equally dangerous diplomatic warfare.
But for the centrists in the cabinet, the Gaza war opened a historic opportunity for peace with the Palestinians and showed that in Abbas Israel has a genuine peace partner. In their view, the war reinforced a rare constellation of geopolitical and regional conditions in favor of bold peacemaking moves.
They maintain that given Hamas’s relative weakness and its declared readiness to accept Abbas’s authority in Gaza, the PA, with care - fully calibrated outside help, will be able to establish a functioning government for both the West Bank and Gaza; that there is unprecedented international and regional support for a deal and readiness to commit resources towards achieving it; that there is an unprecedented commonality of interests between Israel and the moderate Sunni states to check both IS and Hamas; that this paves the way for a sweeping regional peace move based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which could help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; that such a peace move would help consolidate Israel’s unwritten alliance with the Sunni moderates; that effective demilitarization of Gaza and the West Bank, the ultimate Israeli security goal vis-à-vis the Palestinians, will only be possible in the context of an overarching peace deal of this kind.
Despite his commitment to the two-state solution and his post-Gaza war talk of new diplomatic opportunities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came down firmly on the side of the right-wingers. The unmistakable signposting was the government’s late August finger-in-the-eye appropriation of a large swath of land in the West Bank for settler building.
Even before that Netanyahu had declared that “security is everything” – meaning both that Israel would have to allocate more funds for defense and that, given the new regional threat map, it would have to retain a military presence in the West Bank indefinitely. In other words, whatever peacemaking hopes there may have been after the Gaza war have been dashed against Netanyahu’s security imperative. For Netanyahu and his government’s dominant right wing, peacemaking with the Palestinians has become a dead letter.
THIS RAISES three key questions: Do the Palestinians have an effective counterstrategy? How will the international community react? And can Netanyahu’s divided coalition last? The internal Israeli argument came sharply to the fore at the Herzliya-based International Institute for Counterterrorism’s 14th annual conference in early September. Each side accused the other of undermining the country’s best interests. On the center-left, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) argued that Israel needed to cement its alignment with the West and the moderate Sunni world through a bold initiative on the Palestinian track. And she accused the right-wingers of being “unwilling to pay the price of a diplomatic settlement” – withdrawal from most of the West Bank in the context of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
On the right, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) mocked politicians like Livni who call for a two-state solution, accusing them of being “stuck in the 1990s,” clinging to a failed paradigm. Referring to the wrongheaded idée fixe that led to Israel’s being taken by surprise in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, he called the center-left’s continued advocacy of the two-state solution “the Yom Kippur of our generation.”
At issue are two opposing concepts of national security. For the right, security is primarily a question of force of arms, control of territory, military superiority; the center-left contends that other factors like sustainable economic power, broad international support, wide popular belief in the justice of the cause and the potential security benefits of a win-win peace deal with the Palestinians must be given their due weight as part of a bigger picture.
For now Bennett and the right-wingers clearly have the upper hand.
For the Palestinians, this means the chances of conducting a successful peace process with Israel are virtually non-existent. Convinced that the current Israeli government is not serious about a two-state solution, Abbas has developed a three-stage plan for which he is seeking international, especially American, backing.
The idea is to galvanize enough international pressure to force Israel to withdraw from most of the West Bank within the next three years. First, he proposes an intensive four-month negotiating process focusing solely on setting permanent borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. If and when this fails, as Abbas is sure it will, stage two will be to turn to the UN Security Council for a resolution forcing Israel to withdraw within three years or face international sanctions. And if this is blocked by an American veto, as it probably will be, stage three will be to go to the International Criminal Court at The Hague and press war crimes charges against Israeli civilian and military leaders.
As part of this effort, the Palestinians are stepping up their efforts to discredit Israel in the court of international opinion, pointing to the occupation as the source of all Middle Eastern terror and calling for an anti-IS style Western coalition against it. The main battle though is for American support. That is why Abbas put forward the first stage of his proposal – as if to say he gave Israel every chance to negotiate before moving to “inter - nationalize” the conflict.
To put Israel’s case, Netanyahu is considering speaking at this year’s UN General Assembly, where he will explain why Israel cannot entertain withdrawal from the West Bank at this time. Center-left leaders in both government and opposition insist that he would be better served preempting Abbas with a peace plan of his own.
IF ISRAEL wants Abbas, not Hamas, in charge in Gaza, it needs to get involved in a serious political process and to make gestures that strengthen him on the Palestinian street, they say.
According to the center-left, Israeli and Palestinian moves could coalesce in a UN Security Council resolution with input from both sides on the future of Gaza, including the principle of reconstruction for demilitarization, and on parameters for an overall Israeli-Palestinian peace. This could also include a significant Egyptian contribution, especially in light of Cairo’s reported readiness to hand over 1,600 square kilometers of land in the Sinai Desert to increase Gaza’s size five-fold and make it more viable in the context of in - dependent Palestinian statehood, with a capacity to absorb large numbers of Palestinian refugees.
If there is no diplomatic movement though, Israel is likely to pay a price on the ground and in diplomatic currency. The Gaza cease- fire could break down or there could be more violence on the West Bank; Israel will likely find itself under increasingly heavy international criticism; there could be greater inter - national understanding for unilateral Palestinian moves; the BDS movement could gain traction; strains in US-Israel ties could be exacerbated. Moreover, without a clear diplomatic horizon, European countries may be less willing to play a role in monitoring Gaza border crossing points and preventing Hamas from rearming.
In late August, Britain, France and Ger - many offered to revive and expand EUBAM – the EU border assistance mission that operated at the Rafah crossing point from 2005 until Hamas took over in Gaza in 2007. Israel was delighted. The Foreign Ministry outlined a detailed plan for the EU force’s operation, suggesting that it be empowered by the UN Security Council to confiscate weapons, prevent arms smuggling and ensure that UN facilities aren’t used to conceal and store weapons. But if the government is seen to be obstructing renewal of a larger peace process, the EU may be less inclined to get involved.
Already there is talk on the European left of possible sanctions against Israel if the occupation continues, with comparisons being made to Western sanctions on Russia over its occupation of Crimea and its aggressive Ukrainian policy. The government’s late August West Bank land appropriation added fuel to these arguments.
Worse: What the center-left fears most is the kind of Israel political victory that the Bennett-style settler right might produce: A self-righteous, authoritarian, discriminatory country shunned by the international community and losing the support of its own young center-left intelligentsia. A warning signal came in mid-September when 43 re - serve officers and soldiers from the elite 8200 intelligence unit signed a letter saying they would no longer be prepared to gather intelligence by eavesdropping on Palestinian civilians.
Given the sharp differences as to where the right and the center-left want to take Israel, and the fact that each thinks the other would lead the country to disaster, how can Netanyahu’s quarrelsome coalition endure? On the face of it, there seem to be many reasons for an election-precipitating split. Netanyahu and centrist Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) are at loggerheads over the state budget; Lapid and Livni both advocate a major government initiative on the Palestinian track, which the prime minister opposes; both are under intense pressure from the op - position to bolt the coalition. But the fact is no one at this stage wants an election.
Netanyahu wants to see out his term to November 2017; Bennett is on a roll picking up more support by the day, convinced he can only get stronger; Lapid, Livni and the Labor opposition have all lost ground to the right and need time to regroup. The chances are that for now, the Netanyahu coalition will hold despite the simmering internal pressure.
But when it comes, the next election will be a titanic struggle over Israel’s character and its place in the region and the world.