Will Netanyahu/Obama be any better for the peace process than Olmert/Bush?
The lockstep between American and Israeli politics was graphically illustrated earlier this week, with IDF forces leaving Gaza as Obama was being inaugurated in Washington, Israel having “made hay while the sun shone” during the dying days of the Bush administration. From a purely Israeli viewpoint, the Gaza operation has probably been deemed more successful than the disastrous Lebanon war of 2006, but from my personal perspective, if Israel or Hamas think there is a military solution to the situation in the Middle East, they are no more accurate than anyone in the IRA or British Army who thought the same of Northern Ireland.
Besides the advent of the Obama presidency, the other timetable the Israeli military was working to was the forthcoming Knesset elections, scheduled for Tuesday 10th February (same weekday as US elections and same voting hours as UK ones). There was some talk in the early days of the Gaza operation of the possibility of the election being postponed, but there now seems to be no sign of it not going ahead as scheduled. There can’t have been too many wars fought where two key ministers were opposing party leaders in upcoming elections (Foreign Minister Livni of Kadima and Defense Minister Barak of Labor).
Enthusiasts of comparative politics will be well aware that Israel has one of the most extreme forms of proportional representation anywhere in the world, with a threshold of just 2% of the vote needed to secure a seat in the Knesset (the Dutch set the bar even lower at 0.67%) – indeed this has risen in recent years from 1% and 1.5%. Needless to say, this results in fractured politics and a crowded party system – 12 parties won seats at the 2006 election, and Israeli politics has been getting gradually more fragmented in recent years. Parties come and parties go – just from 2003 to 2006 Kadima went from not being in existence to winning the election, while Shinui went from Cabinet seats to virtual extinction.
The current coalition under outgoing PM Ehud Olmert consists of a rather unwieldy four parties, with Kadima, Labor, Shas, and the Pensioners’ Party – Kadima “won” the 2006 election with just 22% of the vote. The tendency for parties to split in Israel is well illustrated by the fact that three MKs from the Pensioners left to form their own “Justice For The Elderly” faction for a while – most countries don’t have a separate party for the elderly, and Israel managed to have two.
With just over two weeks to go until the first major election of 2009, all the polls are indicating a victory for Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that one of the reasons for the Gaza operation in the first place was supposedly to show that the government wouldn’t just let Hamas fire rockets at Israel without a response, and that Livni and Barak didn’t want to appear “weak” ahead of the election, this is rather ironic. In some polls the gap has been up to eight seats, and although Kadima has been close to Likud or even in a tie, crucially they have not been ahead in recent polls.
Labor under Ehud Barak have improved their polling thanks to his increased profile during the Gaza operation, but given that this is one of Israel’s traditional governing parties, they are still in a long-term decline. Not only are Likud likely to win the most mandates on 10th February, Netanyahu is favourite to be the new PM thanks to the strong showing of possible coalition partners such as Yisrael Beitienu, challenging Labor for third place, while Shas are also very much in the frame to form part of the next governmental jigsaw. Disappointingly for punters, there have been very thin pickings for what is one of the most important elections this year. Paddy Power did briefly have a market up for most seats, and if anyone managed to get Likud at 4/6 then that is looking like a wise investment at this stage.
So, if we assume ahead of the votes being cast that “Bibi” will head up a Likud-led government, what prospects for peace under President Obama and PM Netanyahu? Will the outcome be markedly different to the Bush/Olmert combination? Obama has pitched in very early on to the Middle East, with calls on his first full day in office to Abbas, Abdullah, Mubarak, and Olmert – and how long before Hillary is heading on a visit to the region?
My feeling is that even if Obama is more engaged than his predecessor, Bush’s call for the establishment of a Palestinian state notwithstanding, and even if Netanyahu is less hardline than before, the new Israeli PM would find it very difficult to get some key issues, such as withdrawal of settlers and compromise over Jerusalem, past governmental parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. Might it be that the only administration in Israel that could deliver on any US-led peace moves might be a Likud-Kadima-Labor “grand coalition”? With the end of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, and peace in Northern Ireland, the Middle East is now the last big remaining political issue that has rumbled on for decades. Will it be solved during the Obama presidency – or even during our lifetime?