Saturday, 26 January 2013

Where does a 'moderate' victory in Israel leave the peace process?

For those who were relieved by the “unsuccessful victory” of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s list in the Israeli elections and interpreted it as the disavowal of the ultra-nationalist and isolationist line, a second thought might be necessary.

It is correct that Netanyahu’s party, Likud-Beiteinu, lost 11 seats. It is true, as well that despite Kadima falling apart, the “center-left” has four more seats than in 2009, with 19 seats for Yair Lapid’s brand new party, now the second party in the Knesset and probable future partner in the government.

Yet, as encouraging as this may be, the choice for change signaled by Israeli electors should not be read as a rejection of Netanyahu’s hard line, let alone as a call for a “moderate” stance toward the Palestinians.

In the exceptionally complicated Israeli party system, where new parties pop up at every election, the triumph of Lapid, a charismatic former journalist and defender of the “center,” has less to do with the prospect of a peace agreement than with the promise of improving the socio-economic lot of the young, urban middle class.

Housing costs, “sharing of the burden” (integrating the ultra-orthodox in the military service and in the job market), and political reforms were in fact the real questions at stake in these elections, long before any debates on peace.

From the right bloc, only the religious nationalist party — the party promoting the settlements — offered a detailed plan to “manage” the Palestinian issue, a plan that includes the annexation of area C of the West Bank, which covers more than 60 percent of the West Bank land.

More disturbingly, of all the center-left parties, only the party of Tzipi Livni and the well-anchored but small party Meretz actually struggled to put the question of peace on the agenda. They each won six seats each in the parliament.

The peace process seems not to appeal anymore. The Labor party — once the leader of the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the PLO — made the choice to focus solely on socio-economic matters. Its leader, Shelly Yachimovich even declared that it was a historical mistake to define Labor as a “left-wing party.”

And while state expenditures for the ultra-orthodox sector were criticized over and over again, neither she nor Lapid addressed the cost of occupation. Instead, sympathy with the settlers was made known, from Yachimovitch’s statement that the settlement project is “not a sin and a crime” to Lapid’s choice to give a major campaign speech supporting the settlements in Ariel, a settlement in the West Bank.

Under these conditions, it is unlikely that the new government will lead to dramatic changes.

True, Lapid, the newcomer, stated that he is not willing to enter Netanyahu’s coalition without a promise to re-launch the negotiations with the Palestinians. But the same Lapid has not been very explicit about his peace plan, aside from affirming that “Jerusalem belongs to the people of Israel and not to anyone else.”

If the victory of the center-left might make a difference in terms of domestic policies and quality of life for the Israelis, the Palestinians might very well be facing the prolongation and normalization of the status quo.

With or without the center-left in government, the revival of a genuine dialogue with the Palestinians — today as much as before and maybe more than ever — will continue to depend on the willingness of the United States to bring the issue back to the table.

Sharon Weinblum is a postdoctoral fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

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