By Yossi Mekelberg
13 May 2015
The hope that the recent Israeli elections would lead to political change and a new dawn for a viable peace process with the Palestinians, feels as a very distant dream 8 weeks later. Following last week’s announcement of a new Israeli coalition government, the country woke up to an ultranationalist, clerical, nightmare-like reality. It is surely not the government most Israelis longed for. It is not even the coalition Prime Minister Netanyahu envisaged when his Likud party performed better than expected in the elections. This is Netanyahu’s last-resort government, composed of the parties that agreed to participate, after his preferred partners the Zionist Union and Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel our Home) rebuffed his advances. What is left is a coalition enjoying the narrowest of majorities, 61 out of 120 Members of Knesset, with a grievous agenda, which seems to embark on a destructive journey. Such a journey among other dangers, would most likely badly wound Israeli democracy, bury any flicker of hope for peace with the Palestinians, and in the process, leave the country internationally isolated.
Election results on March 17 surprised almost everyone including the leaders of the Likud party themselves. Nevertheless, the sense of victory turned into prolonged and intricate negotiations to form a government. The Likud party led by Netanyahu gained only 30 seats in the Israeli parliament, and hence required the support of at least 31 MKs to form a majority coalition government. This coalition building proved to be an extremely arduous task right down to the wire. It required the two full periods allocated by law, altogether 6 weeks. Only 90 minutes before the deadline was about to expire, the designated prime minister informed President Rivlin that he succeed in his task of forming a government.
This is a tainted success at best, and this government most likely will not serve for a full term. Still, the longer this government stays in power, the worse the trail of destruction it will leave behind it. The current composition of the coalition includes in addition to the Likud party, parties which are led by former Likud members -Kulanu (All of Us) and Habait Hayeudi (The Jewish Home) and 2 ultra-orthodox parties Shas and Agudat Israel.
In his desperation to stay in power Netanyahu made concessions to his partners in coalition at the expense of the good of the country. The result is a parochial, sectarian government that serves mainly vested interests with no broader constructive strategic vision. The first obvious victim of this government will be the peace process with the Palestinians. Any prospect for a slow and gradual return to a peace process in the final days of the Obama administration remains no more than a pipedream. This not to suggest that Mr. Netanyhu has ever been interested in a just peace based on two-state solution. However, this government leaves him with no fig leaves, unlike the previous one, to hide behind his pretence of negotiating peace.
The decision by Israel Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, to opt for opposition, shuffled the cards for Netanyahu, and left him at the mercy of the ultra-nationalist Habeit Hayahudi and their demands. Naftali Bennet, the leader of the Jewish Home who was ignored and humiliated by Netanyahu during the negotiations, exploited his newly found power of being a king maker. As a representative of the settlers and those in Israeli society who vehemently reject any territorial concession to the Palestinians, the party supports perpetuating the occupation, enlarging settlements and marginalising the Palestinians in their own land. Only last week, the Jerusalem District committee for Construction and Planning approved the construction of 900 housing units in Ramat Shlomo. Two days earlier tenders for the construction of 77 new settlement units, Pisgat Ze’ev, were issued. Both neighbourhoods are in occupied East Jerusalem. These decisions were already in the bureaucratic pipelines, but the new coalition agreements clearly indicate an enhancement of this direction. A process to legalise Jewish outposts and illegal buildings in the settlements in the West Bank was agreed between Netanyahu and Bennett. This would legitmise the settlers unlawful and aggressive behaviour and would leave thousands of settlers in small settlements at the heart of the Palestinian population, against its will.
Not surprisingly a State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke described the approval of further building in the settlements a “…disappointing development”, and a cause a grave concern “…just as a new Israeli Government has been announced.” He reiterated American opposition to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, adding that the American administration would like to see Israeli commitment, through its actions, to a two-state solution. Rathke stated, “Building in East Jerusalem is damaging and inconsistent with the commitment to the two-state solution.” Continuing the expansion of settlements epitomises more than anything else Israel’s lack of commitment to peace. Giving disproportionate power into the hands of a party that represent the settlers can only be regarded as Netanyahu’s hammering the last nail in the coffin of peace with the Palestinians.
Despair and Demands
However, settlements are only one facet of the extreme national agenda of the new government. It is expected to advance a bill, which would cement the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in law. This is done deliberately to marginalise the Arab citizens of Israel, anchoring their discrimination in law. Appointing Ayelet Shaked as Justice Minister will only accelerate this discriminatory legislation. The Arab Israeli citizens could have been a bridge to their Palestinian brethren on the other side of the Green Line, however, this is not likely when their loyalty is constantly questioned and their culture and traditions are affronted. Shaked is known for her extreme anti-Palestinian views, and as one of the more fervent supporters of collective punishment. Last year she wrote on her Facebook page: “Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.” One can hardly expect justice, due process, let alone peace, when the the person in charge of justice, and is central to the process of appointing judges, holds these kind of views.
In Ramallah, as could only be expected, the reaction to the new Israeli government was one of despair mixed with demands from the international community to exert its influence to stop settlements activity and bring the two-state solution back on the agenda. Washington was more cautious, probably pondering whether there is any new diplomacy which is worth pursuing. Considering the composition of the new Israeli government and the power struggle between the White House and Capitol Hill, any attempt to conduct meannigful peace negotiations is futile. The unconditional support of Republicans of Israel’s policies leaves the President with restricted room to exert influence in order to bring about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Tragically, in the absence of peace one can only envisage the vicious cycle of animosity and violence continuing, more settlements expansion, calls for BDS and an even harsher occupation. Is this what the Israeli voters prayed for when they cast their ballots two months ago? I doubt it.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.