May 18, 2015 - Will Israel's new government survive, whither the peace process, reassurance on Iran, and more

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This week, Alpher discusses whether Netanyahu’s new right-wing governing coalition-of-61 survive, or if it is possible that it will expand to include the center-left; why Labor leader Isaac Herzog angrily condemned the new coalition as a “circus;” how the US and the Palestinians are dealing with the fact that this new government is almost certainly not a candidate for a peace process; were US efforts to smooth ruffled Middle East feathers regarding Iran last week (when President Obama hosted Arab leaders from the Persian Gulf at a Camp David summit and he reassured them about American intentions toward Iran and offered more security coordination) in any way significant; and whether Palestinian economic progress promotes peace.

 

Q. Will Netanyahu’s new right-wing governing coalition-of-61 survive? Expand to include the center-left?

A. Because it is fairly homogeneous in composition, meaning right-wing ultra-nationalist, and because new members of Knesset and new ministers of all political persuasions very quickly grow attached to their many perks and privileges, this government stands a fair chance of surviving for at least two years, without defections, even if it does not expand.

It also stands a fair chance of expanding, at least by reclaiming the six mandates of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. The latter, no less right-wing than the government, is likely to feel lonely very quickly in the heavily left-center opposition. The possibility of a broader expansion to include Labor appeared to be at least temporarily off the cards when, on the occasion of the new ministers taking their oaths of office last Thursday, Labor leader Isaac Herzog angrily condemned the new coalition as a “circus” and vowed never to join it.

 

Q. Why a circus?

Here I’ll let two wise and experienced political commentators speak.

Yediot Ahronot’s Nachum Barnea: “Ehud Barak was the teacher who taught Binyamin Netanyahu how to choose people for jobs: first you check their skills; then you sit with them to inquire about their professional inclinations; then you appoint them to the job they are least qualified for, the one they really don’t want. Yariv Levin would be happy to be minister of justice or of communications; so you appoint him minister of tourism. . . . Haim Katz is the veteran leader of the Israel Aircraft Industry employees, a very strong sector of the economy; so you appoint him minister of welfare. Miri Regev, more than any politician, represents Israeli [vulgar] cultural norms, so you make her minister of culture.”

Titles are cheap. This government has a single minister for both transportation and intelligence. What’s the connection? None. Nor has a minister of intelligence ever been needed, since Israel’s intelligence arms work under the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister. The most right-wing settler is minister of agriculture, where he will concentrate on expanding settlements most of which are urban in structure. The minister of economy (Aryeh Deri of Shas) served a jail sentence for accepting bribes and the minister of housing (Yoav Galant of Kulanu) illegally appropriated public lands for his garden. The minister of justice (Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home) is a veteran campaigner for subjugating Israel’s courts to greater legislative controls.

A circus, indeed. As a very sharp former politician, Haim Ramon, points out, Herzog does not have to join the coalition, where Netanyahu is ostensibly saving the Foreign Ministry as an inducement, in order to serve as the prime minister’s fig leaf for the peace process. “When foreign leaders urge Netanyahu to move toward an agreement with the Palestinians, they’ll hear from him the following response: ‘I am faithful to the Bar Ilan speech [where, in 2010, he ostensibly endorsed the two-state solution] and interested in a historic compromise with the Palestinians. But only if Herzog joins my government can I move toward an agreement without my coalition collapsing.’” Hopefully, Herzog has heard from predecessors like Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni how Netanyahu tempted them to join his coalitions with promises of a peace process, then skillfully thwarted their best efforts.

 

Q. So the new government is almost certainly not a candidate for a peace process. How are the US and the Palestinians dealing with this?

A. President Obama told the al-Arabiya channel last week, on the sidelines of the US-GCC summit at Camp David, that he saw no chance for a peace process in the coming year in view of Netanyahu’s positions and the “challenges” facing Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.  As for Abbas, he set three conditions for renewing a peace process with Netanyahu: a settlement construction freeze, release of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned by Israel prior to the Oslo accords, and a commitment by Israel to negotiate for a year, after which a timetable would be set for ending the occupation by the end of 2017. Since Abbas presumably knows his conditions are unacceptable to Netanyahu, he is in effect also saying there will be no peace process.

Interestingly, a couple of months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the recent interim nuclear deal between the US-led P5 + 1 and Iran, Abbas had offered to renew negotiations with Israel unconditionally. Clearly his “conditions” are flexible, because in fact he remains focused on the drive to “internationalize” the conflict by appealing to global institutions to sanction Israel. The most pressing of these Palestinian campaigns is now unfolding in FIFA, the international governing body of soccer (“football” in most of the world). The head of the Palestinian football association is Jibril Rajoub, an aggressive former head of West Bank security who is pressing FIFA to suspend Israel for a variety of alleged offenses ranging from preventing Arab players and teams from reaching Ramallah to destroying Palestinian football facilities.

Why is a campaign against Israel in FIFA significant? Because any sanctions inflicted on Israel’s international sports status are felt immediately by hundreds of thousands of Israeli fans most of whom are more than likely political hawks who prefer to ignore the Palestinians. Now they won’t be able to. A second reason is Jibril’s political ambitions: he is a contender to succeed the aging Abbas, and a “victory” at FIFA would undoubtedly boost his popularity in the West Bank.

In the absence of negotiations, an equally interesting aspect of the emerging situation is the question how, once (and assuming) Obama has reached a conclusive nuclear deal with Iran, Washington will address the growing demand by countries like France and New Zealand to pass a Security Council resolution recognizing the state of Palestine. This threat could well compel Netanyahu, within half a year, to reach some sort of compromise with a US president with whom he clearly has a highly negative relationship. One short-term formula could conceivably involve Israel offering to acquiesce in the Iran deal and agreeing to discuss a compensatory American security package in order to recruit minimal US support (a UN Security Council veto) on the Palestinian issue. But why should a lame-duck Obama agree, unless Netanyahu also makes a move on the Palestinian issue? That brings us back full circle to Haim Ramon’s description above of Netanyahu’s “fig leaf” tactic.  

 

Q. This also brings us back to US efforts to smooth ruffled Middle East feathers regarding Iran. Last week, President Obama hosted Arab leaders from the Persian Gulf at a Camp David summit, where he reassured them about American intentions toward Iran and offered more security coordination. Did anything significant happen here?

A. The six Gulf Cooperation Council emirates are as concerned as Netanyahu regarding the Iran nuclear deal. One way they displayed their concern and their doubts about the wisdom of the US strategy regarding Iran was for four of their leaders, headed by Saudi King Salman, to politely avoid participation at the summit and send subordinates instead. The leaders presumably would have endorsed the commentary by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former senior Iranian negotiator now based at Princeton, that “the meeting looks by all accounts like a face-saving attempt by Washington.”

The US and the GCC agreed at Camp David that “a comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program” is in their security interest. And they agreed to “oppose and . . . work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region”. They did not specify what will happen if there is no deal with Iran or if the deal leaves Iran with a nuclear capability that is deemed by Saudi Arabia and possibly other GCC members as grounds to play nuclear catch-up.

Face-saving or not, talking with Obama about Iran makes more sense than fulminating against him and invoking futile efforts to incite Congress to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu could easily sign on to the Camp David statement quoted above, even if he would want to add a sentence regarding Iran’s threats to destroy Israel. The sooner he makes amends with Obama and reestablishes a productive strategic dialogue, the better.

Then too, there are among Israel’s neighbors voices that protest both the Camp David summit and the emirates’ behavior. Here is Jordanian commentator Oraib Al Rantawi, writing in the Amman daily Addostour: “What will Iran do with the 120-billion dollars of released frozen assets [following an agreement]?” Questions like these “are ridiculed by Washington and are not treated seriously at all”. Meanwhile, “some Gulf states are implicated in backing groups [e.g., Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda] that are classified as terrorist from Syria to Libya via Yemen”--an issue also presumably ignored by Washington in its talks with the leaders of those same Gulf countries at Camp David.

 

Q. Returning to Obama’s comments to al-Arabiya, he also endorsed economic aid to the Palestinians as an interim trust-builder. Does Palestinian economic progress promote peace?

A. The record shows that this is emphatically not the case. Indeed, precisely because some people of good will promote this idea and others who know better endorse it cynically, there is a danger that prosperity will create a dangerous illusion of peace and stability.

Note that as far back as the British Mandate in the 1930s, economic investment was heralded as a way to ensure Jewish-Arab coexistence in Palestine. It was only in 1937 that the Peel Commission report dispelled this notion; indeed, the “Arab revolt” of 1936-39 (against both the British and the Zionist project) erupted at a time of prosperity. So did both intifadas. The first, in late 1987, came 20 years after Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan opened the green line border between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War and promoted economic interaction as a guarantee against violence. Until recently, Tony Blair’s main task as Quartet representative to the Palestinian Authority was to promote economic development as a stimulus to peace.

Obviously, economic investment in the Palestinian territories is a good thing because it promotes well-being; nobody should wish Palestinians to be poor. That may be all that Obama intends. But he should be aware that “economic peace” has become a right-wing slogan in Israel. Netanyahu used it in his 2008-9 campaign, stating that a better economic situation had to precede a peace process. Naftali Bennet boosts West Bank infrastructure and hi-tech development as a euphemism for his version of apartheid. Both will be delighted to facilitate the investment Obama is proposing.

The bottom line is that the conflict is political and increasingly ideological and religious. It is certainly not economic. We should all have learned that by now.

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