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Uncertainty in Israeli Politics

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 24, 2009

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On March 24, the leaders of Israel's conservative Likud party reached a provisional coalition deal with the center-left Labor party, moving closer to the formation of a broad government coalition. CFR's Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, discusses the deal's potential divisiveness for the Labor Party. Its leader, current Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, favors joining the coalition, but a faction within Labor wants to go into opposition rather than partner with Likud, Cook says. He adds that the recent trend of multiparty governments in Israel has made it "extraordinarily difficult for the Israeli government and for governments dealing with Israel to figure out exactly where the Israelis stand on a variety of issues." He expects little progress on any negotiations with Palestinians or unity talks between the two rival Palestinian factions.

Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, is trying to form a governing coalition. He needs sixty-one seats for a majority and the major question is whether the Labor Party, headed by Ehud Barak, the current defense minister, will go along, to give Netanyahu a majority. Barak and Netanyahu have signed a provisional deal, though Labor still needs to approve it, and there are murmurings that the party could split. What do you think will happen?

What was going to happen with Labor was up in the air until the last couple of days. Certainly, Ehud Barak wanted to be in the coalition and the people that he has appointed to negotiate with Likud wanted to be in the coalition, but there's a faction that wants to go into opposition, to rebuild and remake the party, and they feel that the best way to do that is by going into opposition and attracting new blood to the Labor movement. When I was in Israel two weeks ago, a senior Labor Party official hinted that despite the fact that the party was maintaining its position that it wanted to go into opposition, the party would, under certain circumstances, be open to joining the coalition. And you know, with the kind of deals that go on in Israeli politics, particularly during coalition building, it was always entirely possible that Labor would ultimately end up in the government.

Netanyahu already has Shas, a leading conservative religious party, aboard, along with Yisrael Beytenu, a right-wing secularist party. Do you think he might be able to persuade Tzipi Livni, the head of the Kadima Party, to come in as the foreign minister and then have a truly "national unity government," which polls show most Israelis prefer?

At the same time that the Israeli government is conducting negotiations with the Palestinians, there has been a continuation of settlement expansion … because Israeli governments have to cover all of [their] different [political] flanks in order to remain in power.

Netanyahu says he is interested in a national unity government, whether in fact he can pull this off is really an open question. But if Labor does go in, it puts Kadima in a very politically precarious situation, because Kadima is made up of both Likud and Labor people who defected when Kadima was created in 2005 by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. You can imagine that from day one, a new Netanyahu government will try to boost its numbers to insulate itself from no-confidence votes by trying to pick off Kadima members to persuade them to defect back to Likud or back to the Labor Party. So I think that would put Livni in a difficult position. It's not surprising that Netanyahu and Barak would strike some sort of deal given the fact that Kadima actually prevailed in this election by winning twenty-eight seats (to Likud's twenty-seven).

When I first started covering Middle East affairs in the 1970s, Labor was predominant as it had been since Israel's independence, and there really was just one opposition party to speak of--the Likud Party of Menachem Begin. When Begin won the election in 1977, Labor was in the minority. You didn't have this multiple party politicking. Does this weaken the Israeli government abroad?

It certainly weakens the Israeli prime minister, who spends most of his time managing the coalition, and it gets in the way of the development of coherent domestic and foreign policies. It makes it extraordinarily difficult for the Israeli government and for governments dealing with Israel to figure out exactly where the Israelis stand on a variety of issues. It has certainly been the case in the core Arab-Israeli conflict issue. On the Israeli-Palestinian situation, at the same time that the Israeli government is conducting negotiations with the Palestinians, there has been a continuation of settlement expansion and so on and so forth, primarily because Israeli governments have to cover all of [their] different [political] flanks in order to remain in power.

The new Obama administration's commitment to a two-state Israel-Palestinian solution seems difficult to reconcile with Netanyahu, who has been lukewarm on the two-state solution, and with his Foreign Minister-designate Avigdor Lieberman, who is not against two-state diplomacy, but essentially is fervently anti-Arab. How is Washington going to deal with this right-wing government even if Labor's in it?

Washington, of course, is committed to working with whoever is the leadership in Israel. Israel remains, regardless of whatever political problems it incurs, the primary strategic ally of the United States in the region. That being said, you're quite right, Netanyahu has expressed lukewarm at best support for a Palestinian state. He has spoken more recently of "economic peace," which is essentially a nonstarter for the Palestinians, who need a political horizon. I would also suggest that putting off the Palestinian issue places Israeli security in danger because in time there will be more Palestinians than there are Israelis between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. I think the administration is quite right. You have to deal with the issue of negotiating a Palestinian state issue immediately, not because the United States is committed to the idea necessarily but because we're committed to the idea of Israeli security and the demographic issue is truly an existential one for the Israelis.

On the question of Lieberman, it is true, he is clearly anti-Arab. In fact, his campaign was predicated on the idea that Israeli-Arabs, Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin or Palestinian citizens of Israel, however you want to use the formulation, must sign an oath of allegiance to the state, implying of course, that they were a fifth column. What he has said is that he wants to have a smaller, cleaner Israel, and I think that the smaller Israel is an appealing one because it would mean getting Israelis out of the West Bank, but the cleaner Israel means there'd be some sort of ethnic cleansing, if not a forcible expulsion of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, perhaps through some agreed-upon deal in which the heavily Arab-populated parts of Israel would be swapped for the heavily Jewish-populated parts of the West Bank.

Reports have been leaked by an Israeli military school that is largely secular criticizing what seem to be human rights violations by Israeli forces in the latest Gaza war, where civilians were killed indiscriminately. The undercurrent was that these troops were being urged on by right-wing religious rabbis. What do you make of this?

[W]hat are [the Israelis] to do should they withdraw from the West Bank and hand territory to a weak Palestinian administration there? They are concerned that they would be confronted with an Iranian threat right on their doorstep and within rocket-fire range of their major population centers.

This is a continuing story. Over the last fifteen to twenty years, nationalist religious figures have become influential and risen in positions within the Israel defense forces. Unlike the Orthodox Hasidic community, which doesn't serve in the military, nationalist religious groups do. As a result, because they have come into these command position or positions of influences, they have been able to obviously influence Israeli military defense policy. Some people who don't share their world view have voiced concern that these people are becoming rather influential.

On the situation in Gaza, there have been any number of revelations--not just from within this school--that there was indiscriminate shooting on the part of Israeli soldiers. There is no way of telling whether this was widespread or whether these were isolated instances. What we do know, however, is that the Israelis are trying to avoid situations where their soldiers are snatched and taken hostage, like Corporal [Gilad] Shalit, who has been hostage in Gaza for the last three years. They did in fact loosen the rules of engagement for their forces so that they would not be confronted with the situation where they could be snatched or killed because of very strict rules of engagement when it came to civilians. Of course, many civilians were killed during the Gaza operation, so I would expect that given the robustness of Israeli democracy in this case, that there's going to be an investigation and disclosure of what happened in Gaza.

There seems to be a general pessimism around about the chances for any negotiated agreement between Israel and Palestinians because of the Palestinians' inability to get their act together. Hamas-Fatah unity talks seem to be going nowhere, and there also seems to be a lack of enthusiasm in what would be a new Israeli government for these talks. Do you agree with that? And do you think there's any likelihood of Netanyahu turning to Syria for negotiations?

That's quite right. Fatah and Hamas are essentially at war with each other. The theory behind those national unity governments is that if you keep Hamas out, Hamas will always have an incentive to be a spoiler. But the problem is that if you do have a national unity government, the Israelis are not going to be interested in dealing with a government in which Hamas is heavily represented. So you have a stalemate essentially regardless of what the solution is. And of course we can't ignore the fact that while all of this goes on, Israelis continue to engage in settlement activity in the West Bank, which sends a strong signal to the Palestinians that the Israelis have no intention of actually leaving the West Bank. Add to that the demolition of eighty homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized. So there's very little hope that there could be some sort of breakthrough.

When Israelis contemplate a withdrawal from the West Bank they recall the other withdrawals that the Israelis have undertaken. They withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and now they have essentially an Iranian threat from the north. They withdrew from the Gaza Strip five years later, and they have essentially what they regard as an Iranian threat from the south. And what are they to do should they withdraw from the West Bank and hand territory to a weak Palestinian administration there? They are concerned that they would be confronted with an Iranian threat right on their doorstep and within rocket-fire range of their major population centers. So Netanyahu's lukewarm view of these things basically represents a consensus position of many Israelis. It is entirely possible that Netanyahu might go to the Syrians to seek to restart those negotiations to see how far he might be able to go.

Those negotiations would seem to be relatively easy to conclude since Israel has already agreed in principle to give back the territories seized in the 1967 War in the Golan Heights. Now I notice Syria is throwing in that they have to agree to the Palestinian return to lands occupied by their families prior to 1948, which is of course unacceptable to the Israelis.

Right, and there's a question among the Israelis, a big question, of whether they should give up the Golan Heights. Polling shows that 70 percent of Israelis oppose giving up the Golan Heights, so it is not going to be an easy prospect. You're right, the outlines of an agreement are essentially clear. There are two governments from which negotiations can be conducted, but anybody who's ever been to the Golan Heights recognizes the importance of the Golan Heights to either Israeli or Syrian security, and many Israelis view that as too much a price to pay for what little the Syrians are offering.

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