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Despite Paralysis in Israeli Politics, U.S. Peace Efforts Crucial

Interviewee: Daniel C. Kurtzer, S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 11, 2009

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Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former top U.S. diplomat in the Mideast and a recent adviser to Barack Obama, says divisions in the Israeli electorate are likely to create "paralysis in the political process" during the period of coalition building and perhaps beyond. He says this could lead to an extended "hiatus" in peacemaking while the Palestinians confront their own deep political divisions. Nevertheless, he says the United States should work hard to firm up the Gaza cease-fire and not to give up on the longer-term goal of a two-state solution.

What's your overall impression of the elections for the Israeli Knesset [parliament], which will determine the new Israeli government?

The outcome is, on the one hand, not surprising, but it's a little bit distressing. It is not surprising in the sense that the Israeli political system has been fractured and at odds with itself for many years, so having an outcome in which the two big blocs--the center-right and moderate-right blocs--split the vote was not at all unexpected. What is distressing is that there will be a paralysis in the political process, certainly during the period of coalition building and perhaps even beyond, depending on what kind of coalition emerges. The hiatus in peacemaking could be rather extended.

If you're Senator George J. Mitchell [President Obama's special Arab-Israeli negotiator], who has made one trip to the region, do you take a little vacation now?

I don't think so. First of all, he's got a two-part agenda, the first part of which, in a sense, needs to be done whether or not actual negotiations take place, and that is the consolidation of a cease-fire in Gaza, the rebuilding of Palestinian political, economic, and social life on the ground, doing something about Israeli settlements, even with a new government that might be committed to the settlements process. So there is one part of the agenda that needs a lot of attention, no matter what happens in the larger process. And second, even in the larger process, I'm not one who believes that time has run out on the two-state solution [separate Palestinian and Israeli states], but you need to see some active progress toward a two-state solution to convince people that it's worth arguing about. Therefore, I think even if the prospects of success are slim, Mitchell has got to work on [the two-state solution] in order to keep pushing people to understand that's the only viable outcome.

Let's go back to the elections and the two possible coalitions. Let's first start with what  most observers think is likely: a right-wing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party.

There's actually three possible coalitions. Let me talk about the first, and it's probably not going to happen, but it's at least worth putting out there. Because [foreign minister] Tzipi Livni and Kadima seem to have won the most seats [28 of the 120 in the Knesset], President Shimon Peres may ask Livni to try to form a Kadima-led coalition. The prospects of that are very, very slim, largely because of what looks like a bad relationship between Livni and the leadership of Shas [a party dominated by ultra-Orthodox]. The reason I mention it though, at least as a possibility, is that there have been stranger bedfellows in Israeli politics in the past. And if that relationship between Livni, Kadima, and Shas can improve, then the numbers look far better for her to be able to form a coalition. I don't think that's going to happen, but I wouldn't rule it out entirely as a possibility.

The second possibility, also with Livni potentially as the leader, is a national unity coalition where people begin to look at the larger national good instead of the narrower political agendas of the three big parties--Kadima, Likud, and Labor--and say to themselves, "Maybe we ought to run this place for awhile, with Livni as prime minister, Ehud Barak [head of the center-left Labor Party] as defense minister, and Netanyahu as either foreign minister or finance minister, and try to get the place back in better political shape." Now that would be an alternative that would be extraordinarily popular with the Israeli people. Israelis love national unity governments; it's been proven over time.

Palestinian society itself is in deep disarray, and not just in terms of physical recovery from the recent war in Gaza, but even setting its political house in order.

Which was the last big national unity government?

The last that I recall was in 1984 when the Labor Party, led by Peres, and the Likud, led by Yitzhak Shamir, split the prime minister's office, with Peres the first two years, and Shamir the second two years. Since then, the coalitions have been narrower, but even today there are all kinds of indications in the press and in public opinion polling that the division on the part of the electorate is not a division that they want to see played out in narrow politics but rather broader politics.

Livni has asked Netanyahu to join her coalition, and he's so far refused, right?

Yes, but twenty-four hours after the voting everyone is playing their gambits now. The right is claiming victory, the left is claiming victory, there are all kinds of maneuvers, and in a sense you have to pay attention to all of them and pay attention to none of them at the same time because everybody is maneuvering. But this is an intriguing possibility, and it's one that I'm sure President Peres is going to examine quite carefully, first of all because it's fair to give Livni the first chance and secondly because even if the parties come to him with narrower agendas, he also represents the Israeli people, and I think he senses that unity at this time would be important.

And the third option?

The third possibility is that Livni is not given the charge to form a government because Peres is convinced she can't, or she tries and fails, and then the mantle is handed over to Netanyahu, and frankly, he indicated even before the election that he faces some challenges. The numbers work in his favor if he wanted to go strictly right wing, but he indicated in the run-up to the election that he probably would not want to turn to the Yisrael Beytenu party led by Avigdor Liberman right away. And he might, in fact, reach across and try to keep Barak in the defense ministry in order to place himself in a position where there's a party on his right, there are some parties on his left, and he can say to the world, "I'm the moderate-right center of Israeli politics." But he would have some maneuvering to do in order to avoid the possibility of having to go to Liberman.

I thought it was interesting that Livni met with Liberman today, and he said he's keeping his options open.

You know, Liberman announced early on that he wanted to be defense minister, and I don't see any way in which that will be offered to him, but it indicates that there's a sale going on, and we're in the marketplace. How much does Livni want to govern, and how much is she prepared to give away to bring in one of the most controversial figures in Israeli politics?

Let's talk about Liberman because I think most Americans don't know much about him.

He was born in Moldova, the then Soviet Union, and emigrated to Israel at the age of twenty, and has been in the political system almost ever since. He was a stalwart of Likud for awhile; there was a short period in which he jumped to Kadima, but that was for a very short period. When he was in Likud, he was on the right side of the spectrum. In this campaign, what also came out rather dramatically was the degree to which he was trying to appeal to what can only be called racist tendencies on the part of some part of the electorate. What he talked about with respect to even Arab-Israeli citizens, this was not just an anti-Palestinian crusade on his part but very strong language and activities on the part of him and his party to separate the Israeli-Arab citizenry from the rest of the Israeli polity. Obviously, there's a strain of that thinking within the Israeli electorate, and part of that electorate would have voted for him, but it also makes him quite a dangerous character in the sense of appealing to the more base instincts of some individuals.

Now he also antagonized the ultra-Orthodox parties too. Why is that?

[Y]ou need to see some active progress toward a two-state solution to convince people that it's worth arguing about.

There's a tendency in this country to think that ultra-Orthodox is right wing, and right wing is ultra-Orthodox, and it's far more complicated in Israel. You've got left-wing Orthodox, you've got right-wing secular--there's a mix. Liberman in a sense epitomizes the ultra-right-wing, ultra-secular brand of some Israelis. He doesn't want anything to do with religion and the Orthodox establishment, and he therefore had a fight, particularly with Shas.

Let's talk about the differences between Livni and Netanyahu; you've known them both.

They're both from very prominent backgrounds, and they have, in their own ways, very strong and long-standing credentials within the political elite of Israel. Netanyahu, of course, has the experience of having been prime minister [from 1996-1999], an experience that was mixed in the minds of many Israeli voters. Some people look back and argue that he didn't do a good job, and therefore a lot of people said they didn't want to give him a second chance. And others said that circumstances being what they were, he has learned from whatever mistakes were made, and the people who voted for him largely would say, "Look at what he did afterwards." He matured, he learned his lessons, he became finance minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and did a very good job in helping the Israeli economy overcome some challenges.

Livni has been a very, very hard worker. She worked very hard in the various ministries she has headed--housing, justice, immigrant absorption, and the foreign ministry. And the appeal that she tried to capitalize on was not only the idea of varied experience but also a new face.

Netanyahu, of course, when he was prime minister actually signed some agreements with Yasir Arafat [head of the Palestine Liberation Organization] under pressure, I guess, from the Clinton administration.

Netanyahu's approach at the time was very carefully crafted, when he became prime minister in 1996. He said that his overall approach to the peace process was going to be based on performance. In other words, if the Palestinians performed the obligations which they had undertook and fulfilled the agreements, Israel would reciprocate and move forward. But he was not going to be giving things away in anticipation of expected Palestinian performance. Secondly, he said he would carry out and implement agreements into which the Israeli government had previously entered. And as part of the Oslo Accords, there were a couple of outstanding issues that he inherited, one of them being the Hebron issue. So almost immediately after coming into office, within six months or seven months, a Hebron accord had been reached [calling for the withdrawal of most Israeli soldiers from the West Bank city]. Netanyahu's argument was that this was part of his duty to carry out agreements that the Israeli government had committed itself to. He then, in 1998, signed the Wye Plantation accord, which he also argued was in fulfillment of Israel's requirements from the Oslo process. So, you know, this is not a man who walked away from Oslo; it's a man who was prepared to negotiate with Palestinians. But the track record of implementation by Netanyahu was not very good. The Hebron accord was never implemented fully, and the Wye accord was never implemented fully by either the Palestinians or Israelis.

And of course the Palestinians are so divided right now it makes the idea of getting the talks resumed much more difficult.

[A national unity coalition] would be extraordinarily popular with the Israeli people. Israelis love national unity governments; it's been proven over time.

Oh, for sure. Even if you have a government in Israel that emerges that is committed to resuming or even intensifying the peace process, there are some very challenging problems on the Palestinian side. First of all, the geographical bifurcation. You've got a government in the West Bank [the Palestinian Authority headed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas] and a government in Gaza [ headed by Hamas]. Secondly, you've got a political divide which was attempted to be bridged a couple of times through Palestinian unity governments, but each time that was tried it failed. And you have this intense competition between Fatah and Hamas. Within Fatah and within Hamas you also have further divisions. So Palestinian society itself is in deep disarray, and not just in terms of physical recovery from the recent war in Gaza, but even setting its political house in order.

So if you were in your old job in Tel Aviv, in the embassy, what would you recommend to Washington right now? Concentrate on the Gaza reconstruction?

No, President Obama has gotten off to exactly the start that I would have recommended, and that is the very early appointment of a very senior envoy. George Mitchell was, I think, the first act of the president in his office. Secondly, a few very early actions--phone calls to leaders out in the region, the Al-Arabiya interview, coming back to the Middle East periodically in press conferences and so forth--to make sure that the people of the region understand that this is a priority for the president. And then, in pursuit of a two-part agenda, there's a lot to do with respect to rebuilding Gaza, enhancing life in the West Bank, dealing with settlements, with questions of mobility. All of these on-the-ground issues, but they cannot, they must not, be done in isolation of an attempt to try to get back to a political process, however challenging it will be to do so.

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