High hopes and low expectations

There is no peace process and won’t be one unless Netanyahu is pushed, and not by Obama, but by his coalition partners.

Netanyahu and Obama shake hands 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Obama shake hands 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Israeli election did not bring peace with the Palestinians any closer, but it may keep it from slipping farther away.
It’s no secret that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu showed a preference for building settlements instead building peace, and the Palestinians, playing their own game of delay and obfuscation, weren’t about to challenge him to back up his rhetorical support for a two-state solution with tangible action.
Only two of the 12 parties that will be in the 19th Knesset campaigned on a peace platform and they won only six (of 120) mandates each, a clear indication of what wasn’t on voters’ minds. In fact, this was the first election since the 1967 war that peace with the Arabs was not a major issue.
Hopes were raised, however, by the surprisingly strong showing of a new centrist party whose leader said he would only join a government committed to restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.
Yair Lapid, a former television journalist, started Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) not to campaign for peace but in response to the massive social protests in 2011, and his major themes were increasing expenditures on social welfare, raising taxes on the rich, cutting defense spending, ending draft exemptions for the ultra-religious and refocusing housing construction from the West Bank to inside the Green Line to help bring down apartment prices.
He is neither a hawk nor a dove, but a pragmatic moderate and secularist who believes in the two-state solution, opposes dividing Jerusalem, supports Israel’s retention of the major settlement blocks and thinks its time for serious talks with the Palestinians.
As Netanyahu cobbles together a coalition for his third term (the first was 1996-1999), his choice of partners will indicate the direction he wants to lead his country not only on critical domestic issues – housing, taxes, social welfare – but also its relations with the Palestinians, the Americans and the Europeans.
THE LEADING contenders for senior partner are Lapid’s Yesh Atid (19 seats) and the far-right Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party (12 seats) led by Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide who opposes Palestinian statehood, has close alliances with the ultra-religious and settlers, and wants to annex most of the West Bank. The third largest party, Labor (15 mandates) intends to lead the opposition.
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration prefers Lapid, hoping his presence in the government will open opportunities to ease tensions in the relationship and restart peace talks.
But the president doesn’t have high hopes, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote recently in The Atlantic that when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians, Obama views Netanyahu “as a political coward... unwilling to lead.”
Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) said at his confirmation hearings last week that shortly after he is sworn in as secretary of state and the new Netanyahu government takes office he plans to go to Israel to meet with the new leadership and attempt to revive the peace process because he feels it would be “disastrous” to fail to reach a two-state agreement.
Obama has given no indication since the election nor in his inaugural address whether the Middle East will be a high second- term priority, though he may have something to say in his state of the union address on February 12. Whatever his plans, events have a way of changing them. Just ask his predecessors.
The president may be happy just to turn over the Israel portfolio to Kerry (a Catholic whose Jewish grandparents converted in 19th-century Europe and changed their name from Kohn to Kerry in the face of intense anti-Semitism), but he should avoid the temptation.
Some Jewish leaders feel Obama made a serious mistake not going to Israel during his first term and whether he thinks it is time to try to revive the peace talks or not, he should go there as soon as the new government is in place. He didn’t go in his first term, reportedly concerned that such a visit would only bolster Netanyahu. His absence had the opposite effect, letting Netanyahu set him up as the foe he would protect Israel from.
It is in both countries’ interest that the two leaders make peace. And while he’s there, Obama needs to take a page from Netanyahu’s playbook and speak directly to the Knesset and the Israeli people, let them see and meet him in Israel and hear directly from him about his demonstrated commitment to Israel’s well-being and his vision for peace in the region. He should also meet the new government, and establish relations with those who will be the next generation of leaders.
OBAMA CAN’T try to force Netanyahu to return to the peace table, but he can point out that if the United States puts the issue on a back burner, as the prime minister apparently prefers, he should understand that the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations would be only too anxious to move in and try to fill the leadership vacuum.
They have been highly critical of what they see as Israeli intransigence and are said to be losing patience with what they consider Netanyahu’s stalling tactics. Also, none has a domestic political constituency to counter those governments’ pro-Palestinian leanings.
There is no peace process with the Palestinians and won’t be one unless Netanyahu is pushed, and not by Obama, but by his new coalition partners, Israeli public opinion and a Palestinian leadership that can convince the Israeli public it is serious and worth taking risks for.
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_bloo mfield