Failure of coalition deal with Herzog imperils renewal of peace talks
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Analysis

Failure of coalition deal with Herzog imperils renewal of peace talks

In a roller-coaster week of politics and diplomacy, efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and Palestinians went from pipe dreams to possible, and back again

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande in Jerusalem, November 17, 2013. (Edi Israel/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande in Jerusalem, November 17, 2013. (Edi Israel/Pool/Flash90)

Both were months in the making, and neither seemed likely. Efforts to form a unity government with the center-left Zionist Union, and hopes for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, looked, for much of the last year, like pipe dreams set for failure.

Searching for a way to expand his limited coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been courting opposition leader Isaac Herzog on and off since the March 2015 general elections. While Netanyahu’s Likud had squarely beaten the Zionist Union with 30 to 24 seats, a rejectionist attitude by would-be coalition partners left the largest party leading a measly majority and searching for a way to bolster its rule.

Meanwhile, the French government was attempting to build its own alliances, inserting itself into the quagmire of the Middle East peace game and proposing a new effort to kick-start the two-state solution after years of stalemate and stagnation.

The Paris summit, now set for June 3, has been welcomed by the Palestinians, who also suspended a planned UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements to focus on the French efforts. Israel, however, has consistently argued that peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the two sides, rather than in international forums.

But last week, for a few fleeting moments, both a unity government and Israeli acceptance of the French initiative appeared not just possible, but imminently achievable.

‘Ready for peace’

A left-field call by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for Israel to embrace the two-state solution, and rumors that to cement the unity government deal Netanyahu and Herzog would travel to Cairo for a regional peace conference, sent Israel’s political and diplomatic arenas into fever pitch.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on April 17, 2016 (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on April 17, 2016 (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Sissi’s address, which expressed explicit support for new talks, was lauded by Netanyahu and Herzog alike, with the prime minister saying Israel was “ready for peace.” All at once it seemed as though, under a newly formed centrist government, Israel could embrace an international peace summit.

But the hope for a new sort of government and a new start for negotiations proved to be false, or at the very least premature. Almost as soon as they came to dominate the agenda, the plans for a unity deal and Israel’s possible participation in international peace efforts crashed and burned, as a very different political alliance came into being.

Last Wednesday, instead of announcing a deal with Herzog as many had expected, Netanyahu invited Avigdor Liberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, to separate talks aimed at bringing his six Knesset seats into the coalition.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog holds a press conference at the Zionist Union headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2016. (Flash90)
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog holds a press conference at the Zionist Union headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2016. (Flash90)

Unwilling to play the Duke Orsino to Liberman’s intruding Cesario, Herzog, realizing he was being played as the character in a Shakespearean comedy, announced he was ending the talks to join the coalition.

Avoiding negotiations

Appearing Monday for a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart, during a trip to the region to push his country’s peace initiative, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls looked nervous for what Netanyahu might say.

As Netanyahu started speaking, Valls glanced down at the short written statements in front of him, then across at the pages of notes sprawled in front of the Israeli prime minister, smiling thinly as Netanyahu started to go off script, as he often likes to do when speaking in English.

After praising Valls for his support of Israel and strong stance against anti-Semitism in France, Netanyahu went on to reject the French initiative, saying that direct negotiations were the only path forward toward a lasting agreement.

“Peace is not achieved in international UN-style conferences, nor through international diktats that come of meetings of countries around the world sitting to decide our fate,” he told Valls.

Moreover, Netanyahu claimed that the planned international conference was being used by the Palestinian leadership as a way to avoid direct talks with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his French counterpart, Manuel Valls, in Jerusalem on Monday, May 23, 2016 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with his French counterpart, Manuel Valls, in Jerusalem on Monday, May 23, 2016 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Instead, Netanyahu said, he was willing to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “in Paris or wherever,” and hold face-to-face negotiations without international mediation.

In response, Valls said he would speak to French President Francois Hollande about the proposal for direct negotiations. Hinting at the disagreements between Jerusalem and Paris over the talks, he also told journalists that he expected his own talks with Netanyahu to be “very direct.”

Damage control

A week earlier, during a visit by France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Netanyahu had questioned France’s impartiality and said a conference would give the Palestinians an “escape hatch to avoid confronting the root of the conflict.” Now, with the Zionist Union out of the picture, there were no expectations Netanyahu would embrace the plan during Valls’s trip.

In fact, given that the prime minister was in the midst of advanced negotiations with Liberman, known for his hard-line views on the Palestinians, Valls may have been relieved that Netanyahu didn’t go further on Monday in his public criticism of Paris’s plan.

Aware of skepticism surrounding Liberman’s entry into the governing coalition, the Netanyahu administration has sought to assuage international concerns that the new government would put another nail in the coffin of peace efforts.

Responding to a Palestinian Authority statement slamming the emerging deal with Yisrael Beytenu, an Israel official insisted last week that the Netanyahu-led government would continue to support the two-state solution.

“If a coalition is formed, it’s important to note that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Liberman support a solution based on two states for two peoples,” the official told The Times of Israel. “In fact, it has historically been right-wing governments, like that of Menachem Begin, which achieved peace with our Arab neighbors, like Egypt.”

The PA had said that the deal with Liberman was a response to the French efforts, and that it sent a strong message to the world that Israel “prefers extremism and to perpetuate the occupation and settlement over peace.”

Avigdor Liberman speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Sunday, Netanyahu went deeper into damage-control mode, telling his cabinet that adding Liberman to the coalition would not negatively impact peace efforts.

“A broad government will continue to strive for a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, and we will do so with the assistance of elements in the region. I personally deal with this a lot, in many places, and I intend to continue to do so,” he told ministers.

‘Over and done’

US-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in April 2014 and the prospects of fresh dialogue have appeared increasingly remote since then.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, France, on November 30, 2015. (AFP/Martin Bureau/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, France, on November 30, 2015. (AFP/Martin Bureau/Pool)

Netanyahu’s commitment to a Palestinian state, even in theory, has remained a question mark that’s divided observers of Israeli politics since he took office in 2009. Both his defenders and his critics point to different sets of gestures and statements he’s made that signal support for, or opposition to, a two-state solution.

More recently, Netanyahu has made repeated statements inviting Abbas to meet, saying he is willing to talk with the Palestinian leader “whenever, wherever.” But with no progress, and another round of violence taking its toll since October 2015, many international observers saw the Paris conference as the only chance for a breakthrough.

Now, with Netanyahu and Liberman poised to finalize their coalition deal, it seems the prospects of a successful peace initiative in the coming months echoes Herzog’s description of the failed unity government talks: “Over and done.”

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