On January 22nd, Israelis elected a new parliament. Counter to what had been expected, the right wing lost vis-à-vis center-left parties, though still winning by a small margin. That might not be too bad at all for the prospect of peace with the Palestinians, argues Doron Gilad from Jerusalem. When the election results came out, many Israelis were surprised to find that the political map had changed. The right wing in Israel does not enjoy unlimited power. Instead, taken together, the nationalists and pro-peace parties gained a similar number of seats: Of the 120 seats in the Knesset, 61 went to the right and 59 to the center-left.
Some left-wingers now call for a coalition of center-left and Arab parties. Such a bloc would, they argue, hinder Netanyahu in creating a stable government. From my perspective, this approach is flawed. First, most of the center-left parties will not be willing to set up a deal with the Arab parties. More importantly, however, I would argue that Netanyahu’s government, under certain conditions, will be more able than a center-left coalition to bring Israel to a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu could forge peace more effectively than a center-left coalition
Netanyahu and his Likud-Beitenu party were shocked to see their number of seats fall from 42 to 31 in the elections last Tuesday. Their rivals of Yesh Atid, a center-left party led by political shooting-star Yair Lapid, on the other hand, were pleasantly surprised, gaining many more seats than had been foreseen in the polls. With a total of 19 seats, they have become the second biggest party in the Knesset. It has become clear by now that Lapid and his party will become part of Netanyahu’s government. Yesh Atid will be a dominant power in the years to come, deciding whether Netanyahu’s power will last or vanish.
The average Israeli who voted for Lapid is part of the upper middle class, mainly concerned with domestic issues. He or she worries about the Israeli economy or the fact that the country’s Ultra-Orthodox population is not recruited into the army and represents a burden to the social security system. The matter of how to calibrate relations with the Palestinians would have hardly motivated their vote.
Lapid sought to gain votes on the right, but also stresses the need for peace
Lapid has never made a clear statement concerning the Palestinians. That has been part of his strategy: On the one hand, Lapid sought to gain votes from the right wing. To win the support of nationalist voters, he opened his election campaign in the university of Ariel, a West Bank settlement. On this occasion, he emphasized that Ariel and other big settlements, as well as whole of Jerusalem, should stay under Israel’s sovereignty in any coming agreement. Lapid criticized Arab members of the Knesset, doubting their loyalty, and quickly declared himself unwilling to sit side by side with Arab parliamentarians after the election.
On the other hand, however, Lapid has claimed he would refuse entering a government which did not revive negotiations with the Palestinians immediately. Some of the most prominent characters in his party outspokenly support this claim. Yaacov Peri, one of Yesh Atid’s leading figures, led Israel’s secret service between 1988-1995 and has recently made headlines by calling for ending the conflict in the Oscar-nominated documentary „The Gatekeepers“. In the aftermath of elections, Peri announced that his party was ready for compromises on the matter of Jerusalem. His party colleague Ofer Shelach, a former journalist, has frequently expressed his anger about Israel’s ignorance towards the issue of Palestine.
Yair Lapid is the son of Tomi Lapid, a holocaust survivor, famous journalist and politician himself. In 2003, Tomi led his party „Shinui“ to rank third in the Knesset elections. As part of Sharon’s government, Tomi Lapid was very influential in pushing for Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. If Yair Lapid will prove to be courageous as his father was, we might see historical change in the Palestinian issue.
“Only the Likud can accomplish”
A saying has developed in Israel that claims that „Only the Likud can accomplish“ (“Rak HaLikud Yachol”). It describes the impression, shared by many in Israel, that only the Likud could ever deliver a peace agreement with an Arab state. It is rooted in memories of Menachem Begin, founder of the Likud and Prime Minister between 1977 and 1983, who entered the peace-agreement with Egypt, which no left-wing leader had managed to accomplish before him. The Likud enjoys solid support from many Israelis, who perceive it as a truly patriotic party. If the Likud ever reaches a peace-agreement with the Palestinians, Israelis are likely to accept it to be in their country’s national interest.
Just like Begin and Sharon, who were able to withdraw Israeli forces from Palestinian territory and evacuate thousands of settlers from the Sinai and Gaza, Netanyahu has the power to make great steps forward. The left wing in Israel today is small and lacks the legitimacy that would be required to push for concessions for the Palestinians. Therefore, even if the center-left parties had won a slight majority in the elections and formed a government together with the Arab-Israeli parties, it would not have been able to gain the substantial support needed in the Knesset and among the people to forge an agreement on peace.
The Likud can accomplish – if Netanyahu felt pressured enough
If a Likud-led government, however, pushed for peace negotiations, it would face its strongest opposition from within the right. Left-wing and Arab parties can be expected to support any efforts for peace. Those who voted for Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the high and middle class inhabitants of prosperous Herzeliya and Tel Aviv, could easily be convinced to concede Jerusalem’s Arabic neighbourhoods and to divide the Holy City if need be. Even the Ultra-Orthodox parties, it appears, could be convinced to support a lasting agreement, like they did in the 1990s.
Few remember, that before Begin signed the peace agreement with Egypt, he was reluctant to accept Sadat’s terms and establish an autonomous self-governing authority in West Bank and Gaza Strip. It were his foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, and his defence minister, Ezer Weizman, who threatened to resign if Begin failed to accept Sadat’s terms and sign the peace-treaty. Begin’s wish to survive as Prime Minister was stronger than his ideology and led to a historical step.
Netanyahu the dove? Not all that unlikely
One can call me a dreamer calling Netanyahu a hope for peace. But Netanyahu is known as someone, whose strive for power is stronger than any ideological conviction. If the situation develops favourably and Lapid’s party knows how to pressure Netanyahu to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the scenario is not quite unlikely.
A lot, of course, will depend on external factors. How much pressure will Obama’s administration be willing to exert? Will the Palestinian leadership be ready to concede in compromise? After all, however, it is Netanyahu, who will have to choose whether or not to follow in Begin’s footsteps.
Doron Gilad, 27, is a MA student in Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Doron works for the Geneva Initiative.
Foto: Lea Frehse