Israel’s election and implications for the peace process. Third and final part.
In Part I of this three-part series, we noted that public criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies on the peace process, as well as the nascent “Jewish Character” bill, led to the dismissals from his coalition cabinet of Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid. This automatically triggered new elections next March. In Part II, we traced the history of two of today’s key political parties from before the United Nations created modern Israel in 1948. In particular, on the left today’s Labor Party derived from the early social democrats who worked through the Jewish Agency politically, and Haganah for Jewish Self-defense. On the right were the Jabotinsky Revisionists, whose military arm was the militant Irgun. Upon statehood, he social democrats morphed into the Labor party, and Haganah became the IDF– The Israel Defense Forces. The Revisionists became the opposition Herut party. Herut became Gahol, who in turn formed the core of Likud in 1973. Likud won the elections of 1977, actively courting and receiving support from Jews from the Middle-East and North Africa who felt discriminated against by the Ashkenazi Jews.
The religious parties in Israel have always been a minority, but many would regularly join the party with the highest support in an election to allow them to form a government. In return, the orthodox received control over the explosive issue of who is a Jew, and marriage laws. This, by the way, is a great source of antagonism and resentment by a majority of Israelis who do not share their orthodox values.
Labor ruled for the first two decades of the new State of Israel. Then, following the loss of security that the Yom Kippur War produced, together with several corruption scandals and runaway inflation, the Israeli public turned to the right, (as did many Western powers in the same time period) and Likud was able to form a government following the elections in May of 1977. Likud’s first two Prime Ministers were Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who had been associated before 1948 (the year of independence) with the terrorist groups Irgun, and the more radical Lehi. In one of the great ironies of middle-eastern politics, Begin, the former Jewish terrorist and Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian terrorist, came together at Camp David and signed a short-lived peace treaty. The photo showing the two former antagonists shaking hands under the watchful eyes of President Jimmy Carter has become a classic. The three of them won Nobel Peace Prizes for this, honors which were presumptuously granted by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.
Likud ruled from 1977 to 1984. Since then the Labor alignment has had four prime ministers, and Likud three and one-half. The reason I say three and one-half is that Ariel Sharon, fierce hawk-turned-somewhat-dovish, broke from Likud in 2005, in the middle of his Prime Ministership over the issue of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and West Bank settlement talks, and formed Kadima. Sharon was joined by many other Likudniks, including Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert. Sharon had a permanently debilitating stroke in 2006, and Olmert became the Acting Prime Minister and, running with the Kadima list, was re-elected a couple of months later.
Olmert maintained good relations with Fatah, however, Hezbollah attacks in Northern Israel during Olmert’s term of office led to the disastrous Lebanese incursion. In the south, Hamas, opposed to Fatah’s seeming willingness to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel, started up again in Gaza. Olmert also became embroiled in several major bribery scandals (ultimately earning a jail sentence). During this time Tzipi Livni challenged him for leadership of Kadima, which she prevailed following Olmert’s resignation as Prime Minister in 2008. Kadima had formed its government with support from Labor, the ultra-orthodox Shas, and Beiteinu–Avigdor Lieberman’s secular super-nationalist party that has as a major support base the new Russian immigrants. Shas and Beiteinu often jump from coalition to coalition.
Under Tzipi Livni’s leadership, Kadima won the most seats in the parliamentary elections of 2009. However she was unable to put together a coalition to form a government and was replaced as leader of Kadima by Shaul Mofaz. In 2012, Livni left Kadima and formed Hatnuah. In the 2013 elections, Kadima nose-dived to winning only a few seats in the Knesset, and for all practical purposes no longer is a factor. In those elections the surprise big winner was television personality Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party.
A unity coalition was formed in 2013, as Beiteinu joined forces with Likud to permit Benjamin Netanyahu to retain the Prime Ministership and Lapid and Livni became cabinet ministers. This brings us up-to-date, until the day a few weeks ago when Netanyahu ordered the dismissal of Livni and Lapid forcing a new round of elections.
Obviously Netanyahu thought he could prevail without Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Livni’s rather broad support across several parties. Perhaps Netanyahu plans to align himself, once again, with the right wing religious parties whom he had excluded from the current government. If so, expect a bellicose and deviously rigid Netanyahu with respect to settlements and serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Not that the P.A. could make any serious commitments on their own, without the intransigent Islamic fundamentalist Hamas on board. New elections in the West Bank are unlikely to be held before the Israeli elections.
Meanwhile, Livni has been meeting with Lapid and Labor’s Isaac Herzog. Among Labor followers, there has been a newly felt optimism that a winning coalition can be forged with Livni on board. Polls give them a decent chance. If Netanyahu does re-align with the religious right parties, secular Beiteinu could be persuaded to desert Netanyahu.
Lieberman’s Beiteinu has its own version of a two-state solution that might be a practical end game for peace talks. Livni would have to convince Beiteinu of the value of a several stage peace plan with a private commitment to many of their policies, including an small exchange of land with the Palestinians, should negotiations get that far. Such a Herzl-Livni-Lapid-Lieberman core coalition could offer a formidable challenge to Netanyahu. Fully committed to a two-state solution, they would be expected to place a freeze on new construction in the West Bank. They might be persuaded to roll back some of the “facts on the ground” as Israeli, mostly religious West Bank development towns are called by Netanyahu and other right wingers. Of course, they would do the latter as an olive branch, only if the P.A., or whomever the Palestinians have negotiating for them, reciprocated. It takes two to tango, as we are often reminded, but the dance would be much easier with music provided by this kind of Herzog-Livni-Lapid-Lieberman coalition orchestra than by the loud, thunderous notes we hear from Netanyahu and the Likud hard-liners.