Critical Currents: New faces, old ways

A much more assertive international involvement is necessary

The second Netanyahu government sworn in this week is retrogressive in its size, composition and declared priorities. It is justifiably causing grave concerns throughout the Middle East and in the international arena. For many here and abroad, the religious-nationalistic aura it exudes is nothing short of alarming. On closer scrutiny, however, the new administration is not all that different than its immediate predecessors. Ehud Olmert, like Ariel Sharon before him, adopted the language of accommodation while pursuing policies that intensified confrontation on a variety of fronts. The second Netanyahu incumbency may differ from them in tone and quantity, but hardly in substance or quality. If any change is to occur under these conditions, it cannot build on the flailing domestic opposition (the Left has been thoroughly thrashed electorally and has now been effectively emasculated by the Labor decision to join the government; the liberal Kadima party has yet to define its identity outside decision-making circles). A much more assertive international involvement is therefore necessary. Without a concerted effort to alter current trends, the sporadic and lethal conflagrations of recent years are likely to escalate, rendering Palestinians with no hope and Israel with precious few prospects for a viable future. The new government was patched together to convey a modicum of respectability around a thick layer of ultranationalist and sectarian interests. In the 18th Knesset, fully 65 of the 120 members represent the Likud and parties to its right. Even without the avowedly extremist National Union (which includes a disciple of Meir Kahane), the coalition is, at its very core, hostile to any serious negotiations with Palestinians externally and to full integration of Arab citizens internally. The addition of the Labor Party does little to mitigate this thrust. It proves, once again, that under Ehud Barak's tutelage, the party's purported ideology is constantly sacrificed to the opportunism of its leaders. THE INITIAL DAYS of this Netanyahu tenure will be devoted, in all likelihood, primarily to pressing domestic economic matters. These will be accompanied by mollifying gestures aimed at assuaging the discomfort that it arouses internationally. Such overtures, however, will not be able to obscure three key emerging strategic directions contained in the coalition agreements and prominent in initial policy statements. The first relates to the Palestinian front. The incoming prime minister stands fast in his refusal to embrace the two-state solution, proclaiming a preference for an "economic peace" whose contours remain unknown and whose partners are similarly elusive. With little hope for the resumption of the (however fruitless) post-Annapolis negotiations, prospects for movement are grim. When everything is seemingly on hold, lots of counterproductive things can happen. Thus, a further crackdown on Hamas - if promises to Israel Beiteinu are kept - is highly likely. In these circumstances, more violence between Israel and non-state actors looms on the horizon. This is why many eyes are now directed to the second, Syrian, path. Here Israeli interests may dovetail more closely with those of Washington, enabling stepped-up talks via channels already opened by Ehud Olmert. It would, however, be a mistake to pin too many hopes on these discussions: They will not reach fruition without an explicit commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights (something Binyamin Netanyahu refuses to do), and they cannot be neatly divorced from the regional context. Unless such negotiations are carried out within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, they will complicate rather than alter dynamics in the area. The third - and clearly the most important - priority on the new government's agenda is the Iranian challenge. But the confrontational nature of Netanyahu's approach to the Iranian nuclear program is at odds, at least for the time being, with that being pursued by the Obama administration. It also fails to adopt a truly regional perspective which brings into account the interests which prompted and still - albeit barely - sustain the Arab League's overtures toward Israel. THESE ANTICIPATED moves therefore set the country on a collision course not only with its neighbors, but also with some of its most persistent friends. Although in many respects a continuation - albeit in highly magnified form - of policies pursued by the outgoing government, Binyamin Netanyahu (with Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister) cannot expect to be indulged in the same way that Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were until recently. Yet the threat of isolation verging on ostracism may be precisely the kind of jolt that has been needed for some time. The Palestinian-Israel imbroglio has gone far beyond the confines of a bilateral dispute. It was first injected with strong religious overtones and has, since the Second Lebanon War, assumed regional proportions. It is well-nigh impossible to address the one without dealing with the other. The solution consequently requires a distinctly regional outlook which addresses the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese components of the Arab-Israel conflict within a more comprehensive framework. Such a multifaceted approach requires broad international involvement if any progress is to be made. This long-overdue internationalization may center, initially, on brokering a series of localized understandings that will relieve the disastrous situation in Gaza and guarantee some measure of security. But such mini-detentes - widely discussed in policy-making quarters and think tanks in Europe and North America - will be limited in time and space if not linked purposefully to a broader process aimed at bringing an end to the increasingly acrimonious Arab-Israel confrontation. It is now patently evident that to achieve long-term security for all the peoples in the area, the bilateral trajectory laid down in Oslo and so ineffectively perpetuated in a variety of forms until recently must be definitively jettisoned. The new government may yet provide the immediate trigger for such a thorough revision, leading to a reorientation of approaches to the resolution of the conflict and to the revival of hope in what is now a particularly barren landscape. Such an externally-driven impetus can also revitalize domestic politics, presenting viable alternatives which no political faction can offer at the moment. If it does set this dynamic in motion, Netanyahu's current tenure will have served a purpose (even if it does not carry out its own self-defined mission) for the benefit of all involved.