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Prospects for a Centrist 'Grand Coalition' in Israel

Interviewee: Gerald Steinberg, Chairman, Political Science Department, Bar-Ilan University, Israel
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 20, 2009

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Gerald Steinberg, who is an adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, says that with Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, being asked to form a coalition government, he believes that Netanyahu would strongly prefer "a broad, centrist-based coalition" with Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of Labor. But he says there will be tough negotiations ahead since these two have both vowed to stay out of the Likud-led coalition. Steinberg says he, too, favors such a coalition. "That is a platform of moderation, with an emphasis on economic stability and job creation as a priority; cooperative relationship with the United States, openness towards serious negotiations for peace, all of those things which are essentially compatible with the platforms of all three major parties. That would be in Israel's best interests."

In Israel Friday morning, President Shimon Peres asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, to take the lead in trying to form a new government. Netanyahu, of course, had been prime minister in the 1990s, and is regarded as a leader of the right-wing bloc. And also today, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Kadima party, who had received the most popular votes in the recent election, said she would not join the coalition, but I guess everything is up for negotiation, right?

Yes it is, as it is often the case in Israel. Both Kadima and Likud got about a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset, which means that neither of them has a strong mandate, and that's been the situation in Israel for a number of years. Whoever is asked to form a government because he or she is seen as having the greatest chance of doing so, still has to work very hard to put together a coalition of sixty-one seats, and that probably means it has to include four or five different parties, some of whom have very different platforms and objectives. It's always been difficult, and it's just gotten more difficult.

At this moment, if Netanyahu had his choice, what would his government look like, do you think?

I'm guessing that he would like to have a broad, centrist-based coalition. If he can form a centrist-based coalition, first of all that means he gets twenty eight seats from Kadima. With his twenty- seven, right there that's fifty-five, so he would have many choices to get the extra two or three seats. But in fact, with that kind of foundation, he might be able to get at least some of the thirteen Labor seats, and that would put him way over the seventy mark.

So he wouldn't even need any other right-wing parties.

He wouldn't need any other right-wing, or secular, or religious, or any other parties. If he had the three centrist parties together, that would be the strongest coalition, and most Israelis like that in terms of stability.

Given that situation, why would Livni and also Ehud Barak, the head of the Labor party, say that they don't want to be in a coalition with him?

Essentially Netanyahu has favored two-state negotiations. I emphasize "negotiations." Whether the end of negotiations would provide the terms Netanyahu would accept is open to question.

First of all, remember that we're going to have negotiations, and it may turn out that they will join. I think we need to wait a week or two. These can be very, very difficult negotiations. Labor's situation is this: They've got thirteen seats. That puts them in the fourth place, behind even Avigdor Lieberman's party. Labor was once Israel's largest ruling party. Many members of the party argue that going into a coalition under Netanyahu, would simply mean the end of the party completely. What they need to do, they argue, is to go into the opposition, wait for Netanyahu to fail, and then come back with a new leadership, and a stronger platform going back to traditional values, particularly in the social-economic field. We're going through a major economic crisis in Israel like the rest of the world, and they argue that Labor is in the best position as Social Democrats to come back three or four years down the line to benefit from the crisis and benefit from Netanyahu's failures. That's their argument. I don't think Ehud Barak agrees with that but he's going to have a tough time convincing other members of the party that in fact it's worth joining the Netanyahu coalition. For Livni, it's somewhat similar. She argues that Netanyahu will fail and we don't want to be part of that failure. If we're out of it, in fact he'll fail more quickly. A right-wing government led by Netanyahu with Lieberman as a necessary part of that coalition will not be able to last very long; it will get itself into conflicts with the United States, there will be increased pressure on Israel, and the government will not be able to manage the economy. And in the next election, they argue, Kadima under Tzipi Livni will come back and will have a larger margin of victory, and will be able to form the government.

As far as Israel's overall interest, what do you think?

I strongly favor a centrist-based coalition, with the three centrist parties--Likud, Kadima, and Labor--forming a foundation, and then setting up a platform with a basic open door. That is a platform of moderation, with an emphasis on economic stability and job creation as a priority; cooperative relationship with the United States, openness towards serious negotiations for peace, all of those things which are essentially compatible with the platforms of all three major parties. That would be in Israel's best interests.

What is Likud's stand, and Netanyahu's, on negotiations with the Palestinians for a two-state solution?

There's a lot of waffling there, but essentially Netanyahu has favored two-state negotiations. I emphasize "negotiations." Whether the end of negotiations would provide the terms Netanyahu would accept is open to question. Likud itself encompasses the center-right map. Netanyahu, despite his rhetoric, has acted in a more centrist manner. Likud broke with Kadima in 2005 on the issue of unilateral disengagement [from Gaza]. Part of that was tactical. The Likud argued that it was going to fail, and they were right, and part of it was ideological. But settlements are not the central part of their platform. And in fact, that's why there is a strong bloc, which includes the right wing of Likud, which is strong on the settlement issue, Lieberman, whose party, Yisrael Beitenu has fifteen seats, and a group of religious parties that constitute together on the order of eight or nine seats, and perhaps Shas, which has another nine seats. That would be a sizeable bloc that is to the right of Likud.

And they want to have more settlements?

[Right-wing leader Avigdor] Lieberman says things publicly that others that think those thoughts don’t say because of the political fallout.

Well, there's a range of views on that as well. The hardline settlement community is down to about 200,000 voters. Those are the people who turn out for demonstrations. Those are the people who vote for the party that makes settlements as their primary issue. And the whole issue of settlements in terms of Israeli politics has been way overemphasized. The Israeli consensus, which is about 60-70 percent of the Jewish vote plus all of the Arab voters are not in favor of expanding settlements. The Jewish consensus is largely that "we keep what we have in terms of the settlement blocs," as outlined in the agreement in 2004 between then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush.

Please explain that.

It's that settlement blocs will continue to be part of Israel, that an agreement with the Palestine Authority could include exchange of territory, though the percentage of territory that would be added to Israel would be equal to the percentage of territory ceded to the Palestinians in other areas. As to the small settlements that are in the middle of large Palestinian population areas, the Israeli consensus is that we know those are going to come down.

Right, and what about Jerusalem?

Jerusalem is much more contested. But there again there is an Israeli consensus that unless there are agreements that we can have confidence in, we're not going to go back to the 1949 Armistice agreements, which promised access to holy sites, but were never implemented. Unless we have some more "realistic"--and nobody knows what that means--terms for agreement, the Israeli security control has to be maintained, because we're worried about being squeezed out. However, there is also consensus that in terms of autonomy and self-government, the majority-Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem do not have to be considered part of the Israeli state. The question is security and access to holy sites. And nobody has come up with a workable plan for the Palestinian idea of having a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem that protects Israeli security rights, other than in very flowery language, which Israelis just don't take seriously because of the past experience.

So that's obviously unresolved.

It's unresolved and it's going to be extremely difficult to be resolved. I don't know any serious Israeli thinkers who expect Jerusalem to be resolved in a period of four to five years. Because it's got to be resolved by behavior on the ground, not by pledges that are made and written into agreements that are so far from the present reality that it's impossible to imagine a realistic jump from one to the other in a short period of time.

What would be wrong with a right-wing government? Who would be in a right-wing government?

The fear is obviously Lieberman. Lieberman got fifteen seats which is about 13 percent of the vote, and it's not that much larger than in previous years. He captured a few seats from Likud and a few other parties that were considered to be not broad enough. In the aftermath of the Gaza war and the international condemnation of Israel, Lieberman said we have to talk tough and act tough in the face of this international condemnation, and that was attractive to some additional Israeli voters. If Lieberman is in the government, there's a question of how much is he committed to his platform and how much is opportunism, or let's say electoral rhetoric. But if he's committed to the platform that would mean much stronger limits on negotiations with the Palestinians. Lieberman has also called for a loyalty oath by Israeli Arabs. On that, he's reacting to a strong radicalization of the Israeli Arabs who've become extremists and have supported Hamas and Hezbollah directly.

Lieberman rejects the idea that President Mahmoud Abbas and the remnants of Fatah are either interested or capable of delivering on a two-state solution. Many other Israeli leaders may privately think in fact that there's no real hope for the Fatah leadership returning to power in the whole occupied areas, making peace with Israel and defeating Hamas, but they go along with it because of American pressure. I don't know if [outgoing Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and Livni really thought that there was much to be gained by negotiating with the Palestinian Authority over the last year since the Annapolis conference in November 2007. But they went along with it because Bush asked for it. There was American pressure. And they'll go along with it because Obama puts pressure on. You don't want to fight with the Americans. But that's not Lieberman's position. There are a number of Israelis who share that view. Most of them don't say it publicly. Lieberman says things publicly that others that think those thoughts don't say because of the political fallout.

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