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Prisoner of the unity government

Yossi Beilin

The recent expansion of the ruling coalition in Israel to 94 members of Knesset did not reflect an intention either to lead or to thwart a peace process. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu needed no reinforcements in order to maintain a policy that has succeeded very nicely thus far from his standpoint: refuse to freeze settlement construction, make frequent declarations regarding a vague readiness to contemplate "painful compromises" and a Palestinian state somewhere in the West Bank, and place the blame for the non-existence of a peace process on the Palestinian side.

Articles in this edition
Why we are closing - Yossi Alpher
The arc of the pendulum - Ghassan Khatib
Shaul Mofaz, upon being elected to lead Kadima, quickly learned that he was evaporating in the opinion polls and that early elections could usher in the demise of his party. He hooked up with Netanyahu in order to prevent the worst possible political outcome but without having the leisure of thinking about substantive political and social issues. In his lamentable public appearances ever since, in which he has attempted to explain that his actions were motivated by concern for the national interest, he has even forgotten to mention the peace plan he had presented in the past: an interim agreement designed to lead to a permanent status agreement based on the 1967 lines. That plan was rejected out of hand by his predecessor Tzipi Livni.

Mofaz is a prisoner of the new unity government in which he serves as deputy prime minister. His capacity to dismantle it can only be compared to that of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Atzmaut party: both know that elections mean political suicide, hence apparently will reconcile themselves to any peace process move led by the Likud.

Still, the fact that the reasons for forming this coalition were political and not peace process-oriented should not be understood to mean that this surprising partnership will not have diplomatic consequences. Both Barak and Mofaz speak frequently of the need for a peace process with the Palestinians. They cannot over time look their potential supporters in the eye and proclaim that they are in the government simply in order to be there.

If the Baghdad talks on Iran's uranium enrichment program lead to an agreement and the Iranian nuclear project is taken off the international agenda, the Palestinian issue will be awarded higher priority due both to an American desire to solve it and to the ramifications of the "Arab spring". If the Iran issue is not solved, we can expect a complicated confrontation within the new government: assuming Mofaz still believes what he advocated recently, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and defense minister will join the camp of resolute opponents of a unilateral Israeli preventive attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities. Yet, even prolonged deliberations over Iran will not entirely displace the Palestinian issue--assuming, of course, that an outbreak of violence or some similar crisis does not oblige everyone to devote all their efforts to putting out a Palestinian fire.

Netanyahu will continue his double game: he is ready to go anywhere and speak with anyone as long it's not a question of substantive deliberations over a final status agreement for which he is not prepared to pay the price. Inside the Likud, we encounter increasing assertions that growing instability in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is hastening the day when the Arab spring precipitates majority Palestinian rule there. When "Jordan is Palestine," these Likudniks argue, Palestinians on the West Bank will vote for the Jordanian parliament and all or part of the West Bank will be annexed by Israel. Is Netanyahu one of these Likud dreamers? It's hard to say.

Mofaz and Barak could form a counter-coalition within this large new coalition. They recognize that as long as Netanyahu is prime minister, it's pointless to talk about a peace process. On the other hand, discussion of an interim arrangement for a Palestinian state with temporary borders (modeled after phase II of the 2002 roadmap to which both sides are committed, wherein the United States or the Quartet present a vision for final status and a timetable for getting there) could be more practical.

Without anyone intending this to happen, the new unity government could become the political instrument that facilitates a partial agreement--until Israel has a government that is ready to pay the price for peace in order to ensure that the country remains Jewish and democratic.-Published 21/5/2012 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, currently chairs the Geneva initiative and is president of Beilink.
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