The (possible) resumption
of direct and high-level talks between Israel and Palestine has generated a
wide range of reactions among analysts and pundits. Much of it has been
negative, particularly when it comes to presumptions about Israeli intentions.
The standard assumption among observers is of a stronger rightwing government,
with a couple maybe-centrists here and there, facing off against a weaker
leftwing opposition -- a formula that many
can only mean the continuation of the status quo.
Things may turn out that way, but we simply cannot
know at this point. Information is contradictory
and incomplete. More importantly, the domestic politics of peacemaking in
Israel encompasses multiple considerations among a variety of parties. It is
too simplistic to contend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a rightwing
ideologue who is only stalling for time, while Israel's intra- and inter-party
struggles and politicians' personal ambitions will exert considerable influence
over how committed Israel is to talks.
Of the parties in the government coalition, Likud-Beiteinu
is an electoral alliance of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. In the past, Likud
could be considered a center-right party. Its ideological roots lie in the
maximalist priorities of Revisionist Zionism, but by the 2000s it had come to
accept (though not formally) that a Palestinian state was probably inevitable;
but that for security reasons, rather than historical or biblical, the West
Bank and Gaza had to remain under Israeli control.
That changed in the recent Likud primaries, when a number of
more moderate individuals were dumped and several
hardline annexationists were promoted to higher positions on the electoral
slate -- all but guaranteeing them election to the Knesset and a place in
government. Among them, Danny Danon has declared,
"I will use my strength and influence to convince as many people as I can within
the party...that a Palestinian state is bad news for Israel." Tzipi Hotovely wrote
last year that "the territories of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] are mostly
uninhabited...90% of the territory is empty," which facilitates "the complete
application of Israeli law over Judea and Samaria." Ze'ev Elkin believes
in a single state between the river and the sea under Israeli sovereignty.
Yisrael Beiteinu has long been a little more far right;
its autocratic leader, Avigdor Lieberman, lives in a West Bank settlement.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling
him "the main and greatest obstacle to peace," and mistrusts the Palestinians.
He would tolerate a rump Palestinian state in the West Bank, but intends on annexing
most of it for Israel. His first reaction
to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement on the renewal of talks was
that negotiations won't be conducted on the basis of the 1967 lines, nor would
he agree to any settlement freeze. He added, for good measure, that anyway, "Mahmoud
Abbas does not represent the people of Gaza or Judea and Samaria [the West
The coalition includes Jewish Home, a recent amalgamation
of religious Zionist parties, with some hardline secular nationalist support.
Its leader, Naftali Bennett, is adamantly opposed to the withdrawal of Israeli
sovereignty over the West Bank; he intends
to annex at least all of Area C and control the rest of the territory. Like
Lieberman, he insists that
negotiating on the basis of the Green Line or freezing settlement building
aren't options; he said that building settlements "brings life." And he's
threatened to bring the government down if talks get serious. His ministers
have reacted even more aggressively: Minister of Housing Uri Ariel called
freezing settlements "an immoral and non-Jewish act."
In theory, then, Netanyahu, a rightwinger anyway, is
constrained by his rightist coalition and so at best will pursue talks as a
deception to maintain the occupation. But this glimpse doesn't tell the whole
story of peacemaking politics. In fact, looking at the political considerations
these parties need to account for, and the other parties waiting in the wings
to replace them, indicates that there is a good chance Israel will move forward
with the negotiating process.
First, Netanyahu is more
pragmatic and opportunist than not; most of the time his opposition to a
Palestinian state has been for security rather than ideological reasons. This
has certainly been the case since he accepted the principle of two states in a 2009
speech, declaring his "vision of peace" in which "two peoples live freely,
side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own
national anthem, its own government." A bit vague, but since then he's become
more explicit. In June, in response to Bennett's public opposition to a
Palestinian state, Netanyahu firmly
announced that "foreign policy is shaped by the prime minister and my view
is clear. I will seek a negotiated settlement where you'd have a demilitarized
Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state." After the formation of the
government, he told
foreign ministry officials that failure to make peace would result in a
binational state, which in turn would be the end of Jewish self-determination.
to Kerry's announcement has continued this theme. Rather than reinforce his
attachment to the Land of Israel, he said his goal is to prevent "the creation
of a bi-national state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River." But
he emphasized the broader strategic environment, noting that a
"resumption of the diplomatic process at this time as a vital strategic
interest of the State of Israel" in order to end the conflict with the
Palestinians so that Israel can focus on Iran and Syria. Instead of talking
about settlements or geography, he specified that he is "committed, first and
foremost, to the security of the citizens of Israel" and to the "security
demands of the State of Israel, as well as its vital interests."
Second, it's misleading to say that his own Likud party
can stop him from engaging in serious talks. It can make things difficult for
him, of course; but the rejectionists don't control the masses of the party.
The party has been beset by internal
fighting over the distribution of power and personal ambitions that have
nothing to do with the peace process. No other leader has the popular
familiarity or stature to challenge Netanyahu in the party and carry it to
victory in the next election. Even the rejectionists know
this, pledging their loyalty to Netanyahu and affirming they will work with
him. This would likely be confirmed even more obviously if Netanyahu made
negotiations a party referendum on his leadership.
Third, Bennett knows that if he takes Jewish Home out of
the coalition, he'd be damaging his own prospects for getting back in to the
coalition. Bennett's party is a merger of at least two different parties,
comprised of would-be challengers to his own leadership. It was a difficult
process to unify them, and, given that they are all right or far-right, it's
not clear that it could survive remaining in a government that concedes
Bennett is walking a tightrope. The last two public opinion
polls have given him 15 seats, up from his current 12. That increase comes
while Bennett hasn't had to face any hard choices in coalition policy yet. It's
not clear how much of that support would remain were he to continue supporting
serious talks. But pulling out of the government carries its own risks for him,
of which he is well aware.
Polls show Strong Israel, a small far-right party, winning
two to three seats. Strong Israel is probably taking support away from
Likud-Beiteinu, and it couldn't pass the electoral threshold (2 percent of the
popular vote) to enter the Knesset in the January election. But it's a
challenge to Jewish Home's dominance of the religious Zionist and far right
vote. Its leaders, Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad, have ties to some people in
Jewish Home and its members used to be part of National Union, which itself
once comprised a faction in Jewish Home's predecessor. There is, then, the
possibility of an intra-far right struggle for the party.
If he loses his position Bennett won't have another
institutional home. This is a strong incentive to bring the party along with
negotiations. Israeli journalist Tal Schneider also pointed out
that Bennett's response to the Kerry initiative didn't mention the release of
pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners involved in terror attacks -- reportedly
a key factor for the talks to proceed.
Fourth, the coalition is composed of more centrist
parties that have been more explicit about promoting the peace process. Tzipi
Livni's Hatnua party is small (six members) but she's determined
to push the negotiations forward, putting constant pressure on Netanyahu; it's
the only issue on which she ran. As recently as June she publicly insisted
that "We will not remain in the government without a peace process." The last
few polls have the party dropping two to three seats; a successful negotiating
process is her only
chance to stay relevant.
Also in the government is Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh
Atid. His ambition is to become prime minister, and as soon as possible. He's
as saying that if the party hadn't joined the government, "in a
year-and-a-half, I'll replace [Netanyahu] as prime minister." There's no
indication he has given up on his frantic schedule, and being in government
gives him the chance to build a policy reputation and new support base. To do
this he'll need a lot more votes than he received in the last election (19
Knesset seats). He'll certainly play to the right to this end, taking a more
hawkish stance on peace process issues. But his party is comprised of several
doves and centrists, who -- combined with the need to take some votes from the
left -- will pull him toward a more moderate position. In short, engaging in a
genuine negotiating process is his best chance to build support.
Finally, waiting outside the coalition, eager to get back
in, are Shas and Labor. This government is notable because it's the first in
many years that didn't start off with the haredi
parties in it. That's because Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett oppose many of
their priorities, but especially the financial demands they make of the state
to support their communities and their opposition to serving in the military (a
requirement for all other Israeli Jews -- a bill to draft the haredim is still working its way
through the Knesset process).
Lapid and Bennett formed a tight pact during negotiations
to form a government, blocking haredi
parties from joining, and since then pushing a
legislative agenda that will undermine their access to resources. Shas's
ultimate leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has called Lapid "wicked"
and a "demon,"
and mocked the religious Zionist Jewish Home for being composed of "gentiles
and heretics." Some haredim have
called for "revenge" against Jewish Home by opposing the settlement
enterprise. If they can replace either Yesh Atid or Jewish Home in government,
they will. Reports have continued to give this impression: In March, during
talks to form a government, Netanyahu reportedly
asked Shas to stay out of government for now in return for being brought in
later. In April, Yosef allegedly
claimed that Netanyahu would let Jewish Home and Yesh Atid go and replace
them with Shas.
In addition, the party's recently-returned political
leader, Aryeh Deri, is a known
dove whose position on territorial withdrawals is far more moderate and
open than Bennett's. When he announced his return to politics he specifically noted that
his "great fear is wars. I never voted in favor of a war or military operation"
and that "I'm obviously in favor of a peace process." Compare this to previous
leader, Eli Yishai's, views: On
war with Hamas in November, 2012: "The goal of
the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages." On
the peace process: "I do not in any way believe that these talks should be
held, point-blank...Not just has nothing come of it, but the Palestinians are
just getting more inflexible and more radical in their position, all just to
torpedo any agreement and peace process." If necessary, Shas under Deri can
reinforce the government's support for talks.
Similarly, the Labor Party has in recent weeks been
talking about the need for a real peace process, after ignoring the issue in
favor of social-economic issues. Its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been prompting
Netanyahu to return to talks, telling him in May to respond positively to the
reintroduced Arab League peace plan. She's gone so far as to send him a letter assuring
him the party would serve as a "safety net" to protect him during peace talks.
Public opinion surveys bear out Lapid's concerns, and
Shas's and Labor's hopes. In the most
recent poll, conducted on July 17, Likud-Beiteinu drops from 31 to 29
seats; Labor increases from 15 to 17 mandates; Yesh Atid falls from 19 to 15
seats; and Shas, too, drops from 11 to nine. Bearing these challenges out even
more is the support that Meretz, a party to the left of Labor and one that has
also made the peace process a major part of its platform, has gotten from
public polling. Currently at six seats, the last poll gave it 11 seats; the one
before, nine. In other words,
there is growing dissatisfaction with parties in the government and growing
support for parties outside of it. In the case of Shas, the drop in support is
likely due to the fact that it is out of government and unable to stop the
changes being made to block access to critical resources upon which its
constituents depend. A return to government is likely to reinvigorate support.
Finally, surveys of public opinion on issues related to
the peace process itself indicate majority support, including among
Jewish-Israelis, for talks and for a final settlement. One recent poll found
that 62 percent of Israelis support a two-state solution (a similar finding to a
2012 poll); other
surveys indicate that even a majority of voters for rightwing parties support a
Palestinian state and dividing Jerusalem. Among Jewish-Israelis, 69 percent said
they'd back Netanyahu if he adopted the Arab League initiative. The monthly
Peace Index of the Israel Democracy Institute finds support for
negotiations over the last several years to be consistently over 50 percent,
usually over 60 percent, and sometimes reaching 70 percent. At the same time,
public opinion in Israel has historically
followed leaders' efforts when they've pushed major decisions on war and
Indeed, Netanyahu seems to recognize this: he's just declared
that should the talks produce any results, he'll put them to a national
referendum. In theory this gives him political space and gets him around any
spoiler role his party or coalition members might play.
None of this is to say the talks will happen as planned,
or that they'll be easy, or even end successfully. What the Palestinians do,
how the Americans handle the talks, and what happens elsewhere in the region will
all influence the contours of negotiations. It will take much work to make the
two sides' demands compatible. Israeli public opinion is suspicious
and worried. And Netanyahu might decide, in the end, that his position will
be better ensured by stalling or avoiding talks.
Still, there is room for more careful consideration. The
political games being played in Israel create space for serious efforts, as
leaders and parties try to assert themselves and keep their options open. This
might even have the effect of creating an accidental force for progress. Either
way, the political jostling makes things less simplistic and more hopeful than
Brent E. Sasley
teaches Middle East and Israeli politics at the University of Texas at
Arlington. He blogs at Mideast
Matrix and at Open Zion,
and tweets at @besasley.
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