With new hawkish coalition, what hope for the peace process?

For first time in 20 years, talks with the Palestinians don’t appear in any coalition agreement, but if there is a will, there will be a way

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Many observers of Israeli politics view the incoming government as one of the most nationalistic and hawkish in recent memory. Due to the absence of any center-left parties to offset the coalition’s center-right and far-right elements, the new coalition offers absolutely no hope for any progress in the peace process with the Palestinians, pundits in Israel and abroad believe.

That assessment is not unfounded. Israel’s 34th government is the first in 20 years in which the prospect of peace talks is not mentioned in any of the coalition agreements.

In all three previous governments helmed by Benjamin Netanyahu, he always coopted centrist or even left-wing parties. In 1996, former Labor politician Avigdor Kalahani was his public security minister. In 2009, Ehud Barak’s Labor joined the coalition (the party later split into two factions, with Barak’s Independence remaining in the government). Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid were the centrist faces in Netanyahu’s last government, before he fired them and called new elections last December.

The new government will feature no left-wing or center-left fig leaves, no party vocally calling for a renewal of negotiations and the urgent establishment of a Palestinian state. Clearly, it would be an understatement to say the peace process does not feature prominently on the agenda of this coalition.

And yet, some analysts say that if Netanyahu were to engage in serious talks and reach an agreement with the Palestinians, a majority in the Knesset would back him. A final-status agreement sanctioned by this incoming right-wing government currently appears unthinkable, but international pressure, including US-backed resolutions at the United Nations Security Council or European Union sanctions, might back the coalition into a corner, leaving it with no choice but to seriously negotiate.

Regardless of who makes up the government and who sits in the opposition, among the 120 Knesset members who would vote on a possible peace deal, the “ideological right is actually smaller than the rest,” argued Akiva Eldar, a journalist and veteran observer of the peace process.

“It is not at all certain that if some Arab leader takes a bold step like the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did, and if an American president acts like Jimmy Carter, we will necessarily see the birth of an Israeli prime minister who follows in the footsteps of the late prime minister Menachem Begin,” he wrote in Al-Monitor Wednesday. “If, however, that does happen, the 20th Knesset will stand behind him.”

Let’s take a closer look at the parties that would have to sign off on a peace deal. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party (which holds eight seats) would emphatically oppose any agreement leading to a Palestinian state, while the Joint (Arab) List, Meretz, the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid would be certain to support it (totaling 53 seats).

It is more difficult to predict how the other parties would vote on the issue.

Netanyahu says he supports a two-state solution in principle, though he believes it is impossible under the current circumstances. Within Likud — which, with 30 of the coalition’s 61 seats, is by far its most powerful faction — that is a minority opinion. The vast majority of Likud MKs are adamantly opposed to Palestinian statehood, instead suggesting the indefinite continuation of the status quo or calling for a full or partial annexation of the West Bank.

The coalition’s second-biggest party, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu (10 seats), focuses on socioeconomic issues. During the election campaign, it largely shied away from discussing the peace process. A former Likudnik, Kahlon opposed the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and still believes that currently there is no one to talk to about peace on the Palestinian side, though he says he favors a two-state solution in principle.

The position of Shas, with seven seats, is very similar: The party generally supports an arrangement with the Palestinians, but it believes that true peace is currently unattainable, and it focuses exclusively on socioeconomic topics.

United Torah Judaism, which has six seats, has no unified position on the peace process, though most of its MKs tend to lean toward the right on the Palestinian question, having voted against the Oslo Accords and the pullout from Gaza. However, senior lawmaker Moshe Gafni recently said he was in favor of advancing the peace process in order to avoid more international isolation and a perpetual state of war. However, he added, negotiating with the Palestinians should be done “cautiously and smartly” and in tandem with the American administration.

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu — the only right-wing party in the opposition — endorses a two-state solution. However, it doesn’t see the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations (the left- and center-left parties do) but rather insists on redrawing the border between the two states so as to retain as many Jews and as few Arabs as possible within Israel’s borders.

Liberman has repeatedly stated that he won’t agree to a peace agreement that does not see Israel annex major settlement blocs in the West Bank and in turn cede areas of sovereign Israeli territory predominantly inhabited by Arab citizens to a future Palestine state. An utterly unpredictable political operator, it is unclear how the outgoing foreign minister would vote on a peace deal that would not adopt his controversial plan.

Hence, while it is unclear whether a peace deal could get a majority in the current Knesset, it is by no means impossible.

The incoming coalition’s hawkish nature in no way impedes a possible agreement down the road, according to Orit Galili Zucker, a political science professor and consultant who has worked for Netanyahu as well as for left-wing politicians.

“The peace process is not yet on the agenda, but when the pressure starts, Netanyahu will try to adopt his coalition accordingly,” she said, referring to the possibility that the prime minister would bring the Zionist Union faction into his government. “Netanyahu changes his coalition per issue,” and were international pressure to increase on Israel to move on the Palestinian issue, he would be ready to pay the political price of bringing a center-left party aboard, she said.

For now, Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog denies any intention to join the coalition, but he has also resolutely refused to declare that he won’t change his mind in the future.

Zionist Union leaders MKs Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni at a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Zionist Union leaders MKs Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni at a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

What is certain is that pressure on Israel to make progress toward a peace deal is going to increase in the coming weeks. In a short note congratulating Netanyahu on his new government issued Thursday, the White House stressed the “importance of pursuing a two-state solution.” The EU has hinted very clearly that it will push for new negotiations, and France, Jordan and New Zealand are already working on a Security Council resolution urging an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

As outlandish as it might sound today, the fact that the incoming coalition is hawkish on security issues does not necessarily mean that it won’t be willing to consider a potential peace treaty, suggested Benjamin Molov, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University.

In the early 1990s, no one expected Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to make much progress on the Palestinian front either, but “ironically, due to outside pressure, particularly from the US, it was during his tenure that the Madrid peace conference was initiated and eventually held,” Molov said.

While it can be safely assumed that the new government won’t rush to launch a new peace initiative, strong international pressure could force it to the negotiation table. But rather than try to back Jerusalem into a corner — demanding concessions only of Israel, which would just lead to a backlash in Israeli public opinion and the American Congress — a multilateral approach involving the moderate Arab states promises more success, Molov said. “There might be some tacit opportunities to establish an environment in the Middle East that could lead to a regional approach.”

After all, a peace process requires two sides willing to take that “bold step” mentioned by Eldar. Even the most forthcoming Israeli government, as Netanyahu would doubtless remind all of those who seek to ratchet up the pressure on his incoming government, cannot solve the conflict on its own.

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