May 21, 2012 Edition 16 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The peace process and the new Israeli coalition
Little change for Palestinians  - Ghassan Khatib
The participation of Kadima will not by itself produce a meaningful peace process.

Leave the page blank?  - Yossi Alpher
That Kadima has joined the coalition does little to alter this dangerous paradigm of stalemate.

Israel's 'bunker government' 2012  - Mahdi Abdul Hadi
The benefits to Netanyahu of forming a coalition are stark.

Prisoner of the unity government  - Yossi Beilin
Is Netanyahu one of these Likud dreamers? It's hard to say.

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Little change for Palestinians
 Ghassan Khatib
The formation of a new Israeli government coalition that includes the Kadima party was a dramatic development in Israeli politics and took many politicians and observers by surprise. It was not, however, very exciting for Palestinians. Despite their increasingly difficult conditions, and despite their interest in any change that might revive the comatose peace process with Israel, Palestinians could not find any reason to feel hope after this shift.

Like Shaul Mofaz's victory in the elections to lead Kadima, the participation of Kadima in the government coalition will not by itself produce a meaningful peace process that can end the occupation and consequently move towards peace and a two-state solution. The most convincing analysis concludes that this new coalition in Israel is aimed at achieving internal political objectives for Binyamin Netanyahu and the rest of his coalition. Among other things, it is meant to address proposed legislation that created tension within the previous coalition and made Netanyahu anxious. Also, it is meant to strengthen Netanyahu's control over his own party, given rancor he faced from far-right activists after calling for early Israeli elections (which have now been postponed).

Some analysts also expect that the coalition might be related to the prospect of war with Iran, but no one believes that this coalition will bring anything new to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The contents of Netanyahu's written reply to a letter sent by President Abbas seemed to confirm that assessment by more or less reiterating the same lines presented by the previous government coalition.

Rather, this new coalition indicates that Netanyahu is trying to take advantage of the regional environment and is getting comfortable in the reality that international actors are just not interested in investing politically in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The coming presidential election in the US, the financial crisis in Europe, and the "Arab spring" are leaving the Palestinians and their cause to the mercy of Israel's right-leaning governments. This prolonged situation is enabling Israel to continue its practices, creating new facts on the ground that will close the window of opportunity for the two-state solution.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian political scene is ripe for a solution, despite the conflict between Fateh and Hamas. This internal division is deepened, however, by the absence of any prospects for peace, making the future uncertain.

The only glimmer of hope in this gloomy situation arrived last week from Brussels in the statement of the Council of the European Union, which indicated that Europe may be moving away from verbal condemnation and critiques of Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and international law to practically holding Israel accountable. The statement's reiteration of the EU's official position on the illegality of Israeli settlements and their products was a constructive message for the Israeli and European publics. It was followed almost immediately by moves by both Denmark and South Africa, which decided that products originating with Israeli settlements in the West Bank must have different labels than those produced in Israel and should not enjoy preferential trade arrangements. This follows a similar policy step by the United Kingdom.

It is in Israel's long-term benefit to be reminded by its friends and allies that relationships with them will suffer if it continues breaking international law and circumscribing Palestinian rights in the occupied territories. Israeli positions and practices on the settlements specifically should be linked to the extent of its cooperation and friendship with other countries.-Published 21/5/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Leave the page blank?
 Yossi Alpher
My initial inclination in composing this article about the new, expanded governing coalition in Israel and the peace process was to leave the page blank. It is painfully obvious that there will be no serious peace process between this government and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Neither Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas really wants the kind of "peace process" we've become accustomed to: direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, held in a spirit of compromise, aimed at resolving all the final status issues separating the two sides.

Netanyahu seemingly wants to keep on settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem until the Palestinians give up and accept a truncated entity with its capital in Ramallah. Abbas learned from his negotiations with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 that (in Abbas' words), "the gaps were too wide" between his positions and those of Israel's most moderate leader in recent decades. Ever since, he has been casting about almost incoherently for alternative ways to proceed: United Nations recognition, reconciliation with Hamas, resignation, elections, "non-violent" intifada, etc.

Meanwhile, US presidential elections have neutralized any serious third-party effort to intervene until at least the first half of 2013.

The fact that the Kadima party under Shaul Mofaz has joined the coalition does little to alter this dangerous paradigm of stalemate. Mofaz and Netanyahu made it clear from the outset by glaring omission that Mofaz's intriguing peace plan--for a Palestinian state with temporary borders, an Israeli initiative to remove settlers and an international commitment to a timetable for negotiating the equivalent of the 1967 borders--is not on their agenda. Under current conditions, the Israeli public will be extremely lucky if the Netanyahu-Mofaz duo succeeds in delivering substantively on its declared priority issues--electoral reform and universal national service--before the countdown to mandatory elections in late 2013.

There is only one conceivable way in which Netanyahu's decision to postpone elections in favor of an expanded coalition could seriously affect the peace process. It is admittedly highly speculative, but nevertheless worth examining.

I believe that one of the primary catalysts for Netanyahu's original decision to initiate elections in September of this year was his fear of a reelected President Barack Obama in the United States. Netanyahu cannot forget that in 1999, one of the reasons he lost an election to Ehud Barak was the Israeli public's perception that then-President Bill Clinton was angry at Netanyahu for torpedoing the peace process. For a large majority of Israelis, their leader's capacity to maintain good relations with Washington is of primary importance; a leader who fails in this capacity--Netanyahu in 1999, Yitzhak Shamir in 1992--is punished by the electorate.

Netanyahu, according to this logic, feared that a reelected President Obama would, in the course of 2013, go over his head to signal the Israeli public that its leader had lost favor in the White House because of the Palestinian issue and possibly Iran. This would happen just as Netanyahu faced a reelection campaign. Better, therefore, to renew his electoral mandate prior to the American elections, in order to withstand the anticipated presidential disfavor without having to deal with Israeli public displeasure.

Obviously, Netanyahu has now chosen to abandon this strategy. Perhaps the "grandeur" of leading a huge coalition, humiliating Kadima by swallowing it at a bargain price, and rather uniquely serving out his full term was too tempting. Perhaps Netanyahu has concluded that Obama will not be reelected, or that he might be reelected but won't prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, it is not at all certain that Washington will find a compelling reason to rejoin the hapless international effort of recent years even after the emergence of a new administration. Iran, Afghanistan/Pakistan and the fallout from the "Arab spring" all appear to rate higher priority in strategic planning for next year.

Perhaps I'm mistaken and fear of Obama's influence on the Israeli public was never a factor for Netanyahu.

There is one conceivable scenario in which we'll find out: if Obama is reelected, and if he gives vent to his accumulated frustration with Netanyahu's condescending and humiliating behavior in the Oval Office and before Congress, and if Mofaz decides to energize Kadima, bolt the coalition and make the Palestinian issue and the US-Israel relationship the focus of Israeli elections in 2013.

I doubt this will happen, though. Too many "ifs". Better, perhaps, to leave the page blank.-Published 21/5/2012 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Israel's 'bunker government' 2012
 Mahdi Abdul Hadi
Most recently, we have witnessed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in four different spheres. Simultaneously, he was architect of the coalition deal with Israeli opposition party Kadima; negotiations (with Egypt) and the subsequent compromise ending the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike; the response of "words and not deeds" to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' letter; and the continuation of military operations against Palestinians in Gaza and settlement expansion in the West Bank, including Jerusalem. Some of these acts sent out a lifeline, not only to the ailing Kadima party but also to Abbas' faction Fateh, both of which thoroughly dread the prospect of elections in their respective parliaments.

The Israeli premier orchestrated the above as he faces far greater threats to his power than the recent emphasis on Iran would suggest. While Israel's unemployment figures are running significantly below those in Europe and the US (5.4 percent at the beginning of this year), 2011 saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets of Israeli cities as part of an emerging social justice movement, demanding lower housing and food prices for the squeezed middle classes. Although the irony of an "Occupy Jerusalem" movement is not wasted on many, this is in fact a real possibility given the level of public disapproval for the backroom agreement between Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, which effectively robbed Israelis of a chance to participate in the democratic process.

The benefits to Netanyahu of forming a new coalition are stark: the coalition reflex has become prominent among almost all European governments in the face of the ongoing financial crisis, and clearly Netanyahu believes that the coalition may act as a buffer for his own party against criticism on economic issues. Netanyahu is also far more competent in the field of neutering his political opponents than his predecessors and is happy for now to reap the benefits of a short-term commitment from which he can easily walk away.

However, to focus on the domestic in this fashion is to display a great naivety towards the Israeli context: here the formation of a coalition carries far more sinister implications than it would in Europe. That is to say that this could well be a "war government", i.e., a government that brings together cross-party support to ensure unity during a military campaign against an external threat. The government now contains a number of military generals and faces possible targets beyond Iran, including the Gaza Strip, South Lebanon and Syria.

For now, however, perhaps the description of a "bunker government" would suffice. Israel is currently peering out to its southwest, eagerly awaiting the outcomes of two major elections in the region: those in Egypt (to be held in a few weeks), and those for Hamas's highly-secretive shura council. Israel is notoriously far-sighted in all its foreign policy decisions and is waiting for the smoke to clear following the "Arab spring"--and with it, the emergence of a new chapter in political Islam--before it can reassess its predicament and decide where to point the guns.

It must be said however that this coalition was not formed with an exclusively "war agenda", but also to maintain the status quo. Following the forging of the coalition, Israel has followed its longer-term strategic agenda of keeping an open door for dialogue with Egypt in order to maintain security along shared borders, contain Hamas in Gaza, and prepare for relations with the future Egyptian president.

Moreover, Israel has acted to ensure the survival of President Abbas' authority in the West Bank by agreeing to the demands of hunger-striking prisoners. Had a prisoner perished during the hunger strike, Abbas' legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians would have been dealt a killer blow, while Hamas would have benefitted from the public outrage against Israel. Therefore, in the name of continuity, the Israelis want to sail clear of open warfare with the Palestinians, while maintaining the peace process in its current state of deadlock.-Published 21/5/2012 ©

Mahdi Abdul Hadi is chairman of Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem and a political analyst.

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.

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 ©

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