February 23, 2009

Israeli coalition building

Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and the author

The Dallas Morning News February 23 edition included an editorial titled "Time for Moderation in Israel." It is an excellent analysis - of course, if one agrees with it, it is excellent....

I have a few comments on the piece. Selected editorial text is in red.

Israel faces a rare opportunity to revive Middle East peace talks with a unity government representing the major conservative, liberal and centrist points of view. Conservative Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is tasked with forming a government, but his initial efforts to include the left-leaning Labor and centrist Kadima parties have been rebuffed.

If those parties are hoping for a better balance, they could wind up waiting a long time in Israel's cold political wilderness. By balking at Netanyahu's offer, they are pushing him toward a government of far-right extremists, which would bring Middle East peace efforts to a screeching halt.

A key point. The centrist Kadima party under Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won the most seats in the election - 28 seats to Likud's 27 - and clearly has a following among the Israeli electorate. Livni is well regarded in conservative and liberal circles and would be an asset to the harder line Likud. While she may want to lead the opposition since she was not asked by President Shimon Peres to form a new government, her party could bring a lot to a coalition with Likud. it would send a message to the Palestinians that Israel is united in its dealings with Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas (Abu Mazin).

In my recent trip to Israel, many of the officials and journalists that I spoke with believe the greatest short-term threat to Israel is Hamas and the Gaza situation. Iran remains the strategic and "existential" threat to the Jewish state - I was surprised how much less I heard about Iran than I did when I was there two years ago.

The third-place finisher in this month's elections was the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman, a man described by various Israel observers as a borderline racist who seeks to force Israel's Arab citizens to swear an oath of loyalty. Lieberman can bring Netanyahu close to gaining the parliamentary majority he needs to govern, but at a steep political price.

Moderate leaders are holding out in hopes of negotiating power-sharing arrangements. Kadima and Labor are playing a dangerous game of political chicken at a crucial moment in Obama administration efforts to rekindle peace talks.

If Kadima/Livni and Labor led by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak do not agree to join a Likud/Netanyahu-led coalition, Netanyahu will have no choice but to bring Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, our home) and its 25 seats into the governing coalition. If that happens, Likud will have to make concessions to Yisrael Beiteinu and take a hard line on Israel's Arab citizens, not to mention the stance the resulting coalition will have to take against Hamas.

The conservatives' strong showing in Israel's elections shows that a wide swath of the population is fed up with rocket attacks from Gaza and the intransigent stance of Hamas. If Hamas leaders are serious about initiating contact with the Obama administration, a mere cease-fire won't be enough.

This is almost an understatement. The Israelis are united in their anti-Hamas stance. The more than 8000 rockets fired into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip since the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 has seen to that. Hamas's stock is pretty low in the United States as well.

If Israeli moderates are serious about peace, they must remain engaged from inside the government. An Israeli Cabinet full of extreme right-wingers would be a disaster for all.

Mrs Livni and General Barak - hear, hear.