End of the wasted decade / slightly optimistic analysis of the current moment in Israeli politics

Posted: December 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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Almost two weeks of intense political maneuvering ended yesterday. Many people on the Left got worried by Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to split the opposition Kadima party or to have it join his coalition. Both options, it seemed, would have made the PM even stronger, and everything that’s good for Netanyahu is surly bad for the peace process. Or isn’t it?

While I write here regularly against the current Israeli policies, and consider myself to be a part of the Left, I think that the last year have moved us closer to the end of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, possibly also to the end of the siege on Gaza. The current political circumstances are pretty favorable, to the point that if I could have replaced Netanyahu with other Israeli leaders – say Livni or Barak – I probably wouldn’t go for it.

To understand why, we need to dive into the depth of the complex political dynamics in Israel.

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If left to do as he wishes, I have no doubt PM Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t make one step towards the end of the Israeli occupation. His ideological background is one that views the West Bank as part of the land of Israel; he believes that an independent Palestinian state would put Israel’s national security in danger; and his political base has always been on the Israeli right.

But political leaders have to consider political circumstances and limitations, and Netanyahu – unlike the two other PMs from Likud, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon – is extremely sensitive to outside pressure. And pressure came from the first moment Netanyahu entered his office.

First, there was the new approach from Washington. It’s not just Obama, but the whole backlash against the Middle East policy of the Bush administration. Furthermore, the world knew Netanyahu, and remembered him as the man who succeeded Yitzhak Rabin and almost single handedly buried the Oslo accord. And if somebody was ready to consider the idea of “a new Netanyahu”, along came the appointment of Avigdor Liberman to the Foreign Office and fixed the image of this government – quiet rightly, I must say – as the most extreme Israel ever had. Even Israel’s supporters are having troubles in the last year explaining the PM’s fondness for settling in the West Bank or defending the daily gaffe by the Foreign Minister.

And there was the war in Gaza. It’s hard to grasp how differently the international community and most Israelis view operation Cast Lead. Israelis see the war as a justified, even heroic, act against Hamas’ aggression – which was the Palestinian response to the good fate we showed in withdrawing from the Gaza strip – while most of the international community sees Cast Lead as a barbaric attack on (mostly) innocent civilians. And while the Goldstone report might never be adopted by the UN Security Council, the respond it initiated made it clear that in the near future – and unless something very dramatic happens and change everything (we always have to add this sentence in the post 11/9 world, don’t we?) – there won’t be another Cast Lead. The world won’t allow it.

All these elements – the change in Washington, the suspicious welcome the world gave Netanyahu and the respond to the war in Gaza – are forcing Netanyahu to do something he never planned to – at least with regards to the Palestinians: to act. That’s why he announced the settlement moratorium, and that’s why he is willing, according to today’s reports, to negotiate a Palestinian state on the 67′ borders, and even to talk about Jerusalem’s statues. And this is the man that won the 1996 elections after he accused Shimon Peres of agreeing to divide the Israeli capitol.

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Yes, I would have preferred a Hadash-Meretz government. But this isn’t, and won’t be an option in this generation. Right now, the political leaders with a shot at the PM office are Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, maybe Shaul Mofaz, and god forbid, Avigdor Liberman. Next in line after them are people with basically the same agenda.

I don’t trust Ehud Barak. I don’t know what drives him, I don’t think anyone understands what his views are, and I believe he has at least partial responsibility for the failure of the Camp David summit and the negotiations with the Syrians – and all that followed this failure.

With Kadima and Livni, it’s even worse. Under Ehud Olmert, this party brought to perfection the art of talking about peace and declaring wars. Olmert offered the Palestinians, so it’s told, just about everything – but in reality, all they got from him were bombs. At the time, the international community believed the Israeli PM was truly seeking peace, so it didn’t look so harshly when he opened fire. With Netanyahu it’s the other way around: the international community keeps a watchful eye on every move he makes.

There is a point which must be understood regarding the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians: the currency Israel is expected to pay in negotiations is land, so Israeli leaders will always prefer talks to actual actions; the Palestinians are expected to pay in legitimacy (to Israel), so for them, negotiating is the problem. When they recognize Israel and sit to the table with its leaders, they are already giving their part in the deal.

The State Department understood this recently. According to a source there, the Palestinian leadership “wants a deal with Israel without any negotiations” and Israel’s leadership “wants negotiations with the Palestinians without any deal.”

To break this dynamic, once negotiations start, there must be constant pressure on the Israeli side to deliver the goods. Otherwise, talks will go on forever. The pressure is more important than the actual identity of the Israel prime minister, and as I said, the current circumstances make the world apply this pressure on Netanyahu in a way it never did – and probably never will – on the prime ministers from Labor or Kadima.

To that we must add the question of the PM’s personality. I hope I won’t be proven wrong here, but from what I observe, Netanyahu – unlike his image – is very careful with the use of military power. During his previous term, when violent clashes occurred between Palestinians and Israelis over the Kotel Tunnel incident, Netanyahu went out of his way to stop the fire. He even hugged Yasser Arafat. Compare that to Ehud Barak’s response to the October 2000 events, or to the Olmert-Livni cabinet, which started two wars.

Sometimes, we should judge leaders by what they do, not just by what they say, and Netanyahu is the only Israeli PM in almost two decades not to start a wide scale military operation against the Palestinians or a neighboring Arab country (and that includes the six months Peres had at the PM office, which were enough for him to start the 1996 operation in Lebanon). I hope Netanyahu’s record doesn’t change. It’s actually nice to know we have a leader with not much blood on his hands.

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Another point to consider: only Likud governments evacuated settlements (it happened twice – in the Sinai Peninsula and in Gaza). It is no coincident: with the Jewish public usually split on such questions, and even slightly against territorial concessions, a leader from the Left has to face enormous opposition for the evacuation, while a leader from the Likud has only the extreme right to fight.

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At this point it must seem like I’ve joined the ever expanding Israeli cult of “former-lefties”, or at least the Netanyahu fan club. Far from it. I still think that Bibi doesn’t want to leave the West Bank, and even if he changes his mind, I’m not sure he is up to this task, which already left one PM dead, and possibly the other in coma. It’s just that the political circumstances, for the first time in this wasted decade, work in the right direction, and they might not work that well if Barak or Livni were to be in Netanyahu’s place (*).

Yes, Gaza is still under siege – but it wasn’t Netanyahu who initiated it. Israel is still building settlements, but not on the rate previous governments did. Some roadblocks are removed, West bank economy is slightly improving – and for the first time, the world really keeps an eye on Israel’s actions, even in East Jerusalem. Things are far from perfect, even far from reasonable, but at least in the West Bank, they are better than in any other time this decade.

Even more important, there is finally some sense of urgency that reached the Israeli politicians, media and even public regarding the diplomatic process. less than a year ago I complained here that nobody cares about the occupation or the peace process anymore; these days, statements from Ramalla, Jerusalem and Washington are back on the front pages of the papers, and politicians are promoting their ideas for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. This is something we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s not because Israelis finally understood what’s wrong with the occupation – it’s because the world is leaving them no choice.

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My bottom line, and the reason for this post, is regarding what needs to be done. The Israeli left, and all those opposing the occupation here and abroad, shouldn’t occupy themselves with hopes of political change in Israel. Chances are it won’t happen soon, and even if it does, it probably won’t help much, for the reasons I explained.

But international pressure on Israel does help. In less than a year, it achieved what four years of terror attacks didn’t. Activism works. Internet campaigns, students campaigns, lobbying, civil and human rights campaigns, settlements monitoring project, UN and EU resolutions – and yes, with all the mistakes he might have made, one Barack Obama – all these make Israelis remember that the international community doesn’t accept the occupation anymore, and that their time is running out: either they get out of the West Bank and have the Palestinians have their civil rights in their own state, or they chose to stay there and let them live as equal citizens in the state of Israel.

Israelis may complain of double standards, ask why the world couldn’t pick on China or Sudan (truth is it does), but in the end, the pressure gets to us. It makes pundits suggest new ideas and politicians explore new positions, since everybody fear that any solution forced by the international community will surly be worse than the one we come up with. And with time, this pressure might even make the son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu make some surprising moves.

Happy New Year.

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* The real problem with Netanyahu’s government is its human right record inside Israel and most notably, the way it treats the Arab citizens, but for this New Year’s Eve, let’s look on the bright side


3 Comments on “End of the wasted decade / slightly optimistic analysis of the current moment in Israeli politics”

  1. 1 rick said at 4:48 pm on December 30th, 2009:

    your analysis is hitting the mark.
    some political steps are only possible, if the opposition is revoked, or even better joining or leading the coalition. left parties are able to cut down the welfare-state, Regan was able to held the START-talks, Sharon to withdraw from gaza.

    I think by splitting Kadima Bibi want´s to form a “war cabinet”, but as you said his intension is not to march into gaza or lebanon for a greater military mission, but to take steps which could be a beginning of the end of occupation of the west bank (in which way ever).

    Bibi wants major parts of Jerusalem & some greater settlement blogs. at the same moment he want´s to maintain a Jewish State. He can get most of it if he´s willing to pay, that process allready started. But a peace treaty with the palestinians needs a solution with Syria & Lebanon and a silent support by the Saudi King. One won´t work without the other.

    But most important Bibi want´s to stay in office. To survive real steps (he might be force to take them), Liberman & Shas he needs a bigger basis for his coalition. And we know, political moves are the thing he´s realy good in.

  2. 2 rick said at 4:49 pm on December 30th, 2009:

    oh..and I forgot: I wish you a happy new year!

  3. 3 Lamerkhav said at 10:30 pm on January 2nd, 2010:

    thanks. good point