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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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Obama’s likely takeaway from Israeli election: More two-state advocates

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President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver a press conference following a meeting in the Oval Office in 2009. [Executive Office of the President via Wikimedia Commons]

WASHINGTON — With the Israeli election results split evenly between the right-wing bloc and everyone else, no one in Washington is ready to stake their reputation on what the outcome means for the U.S.-Israel relationship and the Middle East.

Except for this: The next Israeli government likely will include more than two lawmakers committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

In mid-December, resigned to what then seemed to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s certain reelection at the helm of a hard-right government, staff at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv drew up what they believed would be the most likely new governing coalition. Then they researched each member and counted the lawmakers who had expressly committed themselves to a two-state solution.

They came up with a grand total of two: Netanyahu and Carmel Shama HaCohen, a real estate agent from Ramat Gan and a political up-and-comer.

HaCohen is unlikely to claim a seat in the next Knesset. He’s No. 32 on the Likud Beitenu list, which is projected to take 31 seats, though some ballots have yet to be counted. But the prospect of more than two two-staters on the governing side has risen dramatically with the split Knesset, while apprehension within the Obama administration about a Netanyahu driven into recalcitrance by hard-line partners has likely diminished.

White House spokesman Jay Carney eagerly took a question on Jan. 22 on what the elections meant for peace prospects, even before official results were in and when exit polls projected Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc emerging with a razor-thin majority.

“The United States remains committed, as it has been for a long time, to working with the parties to press for the goal of a two-state solution,” Carney said. “That has not changed and it will not change. We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis address all the permanent status issues that need to be addressed and achieve the peace that they both deserve: two states for two peoples with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel.”

The language was boilerplate, but the context was not: Just a week ago, the narrative was that President Obama had all but given up on advancing peace while Netanyahu was prime minister, believing that “Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are," according to a report by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.

David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with close ties to the major Israeli parties and the White House, said the Obama administration was likely to proceed with cautious optimism.

“We're entering into a period of uncertainty where Israeli politics will look like a Rubik’s cube,” Makovsky said. “But from Washington’s perspective, there might be more cards than a couple of weeks ago.”

The Obama-Netanyahu drama of recent years, arising from tensions over Israel’s settlement building and how aggresively to confront Iran, may not soon disappear. In his post-election speech, Netanyahu said preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon remains his No. 1 priority.

Obama also wants to keep Iran from having a nuclear bomb, which the Islamic Republic has denied it is seeking. But the two leaders have disagreed on the efficacy of sanctions and the timing of a possible military option.

Additionally, there is a sense among Israeli rightists that Obama’s remark was leaked to Goldberg in a bid to bring down Netanyahu’s poll numbers, although no evidence has emerged to support the claim.

The upside for Obama, however, is that Netanyahu will likely first court the centrist parties in coalition talks. According to news reports, he called Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, shortly after the polls closed on Jan. 22 and told him they had great things to do together. In his own speech, Netanyahu said he could see "many partners" in the next government.

Lapid, the telegenic former journalist whose new party snagged an unexpected 19 seats, was the surprise winner in the balloting. He backs negotiations with the Palestinians and withdrawal from much of the West Bank, although he also aggressively courted some settlers. More piquantly, his chief adviser is Mark Mellman, a pollster ensconced in Washington’s Democratic establishment who has close White House ties.

Netanyahu’s pivot to the center is to be expected, said Josh Block, who directs The Israel Project, a group that disseminates pro-Israel materials to journalists and opinion makers.

“Predictions of Israeli voter apathy and of a rightward shift in the Israeli electorate, both of which reached the status of conventional wisdom on the eve of the election, seem to have been incorrect,” Block said in an email. “The voting, which was marked by near-historic turnout, appears to show an Israeli electorate reflecting a practical centrism: a desire for strong security and peace with Palestinians, a focus on economic issues and needs of the middle class, and a commitment to free markets and religious secularism.”

Much of the election was fought on the widening income gaps in Israel, as well as on the role of the haredi Orthodox in Israeli affairs. Those issues likely will predominate in coalition negotiations, said Peter Medding, a political science professor at Hebrew University whose specialties include U.S.-Israel relations.

Medding said the negotiations could take weeks, particularly because of Lapid’s emphasis on drafting haredi Orthodox students and removing Orthodox influence from the public sphere.

“The kind of policies Lapid has been putting forward does not sit well with some of the right’s natural coalition partners, particularly Shas,” the Sephardic Orthodox party that won 11 seats.

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