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Israeli Politics Continue to Make Peace a “Process”

Benjamin Gottlieb |
September 17, 2010 | 1:15 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

This September’s rendition of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is little more than political theater.

Sure, the characters have changed.

For Israel, there’s Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, a veteran of the Six Day War, career politician, and MIT graduate. From the Palestinian camp, there is President Mahmoud Abbas, who continues to state that his government sees "no alternative" to negotiating a peace deal with the Israelis. Even the consummate negotiator, George Mitchell – the champion of the Belfast Agreement that ended the Northern Ireland conflict – is now on the case.

How could this round of negotiations fall short? 

Views from East Jerusalem (Photos by Benjamin Gottlieb).
Views from East Jerusalem (Photos by Benjamin Gottlieb).

In essence, a better understanding of Israeli politics explains why these rounds of talks are sure to accomplish next to nothing.

Currently dominating the peace negotiations is the Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Although an Israeli mandated building freeze is slated to last until the end of the month, an extension of the moratorium for Prime Minister Netanyahu is, frankly, political suicide.

Netanyahu – who is equally concerned with his own legacy as he is with the Israeli people – will not extend the moratorium past September 30th, and the Israeli political system is to blame. 

At the heart of the issue is the Knesset, Israel’s legislative branch of government. Functioning as the parliament for the State of Israel, power in the Knesset is determined not only by votes, but the ability of the various political parties within the legislature to form a coalition government through a maintained majority.

Leader of the right-center leaning Likud party, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is in large part supported by the conservative and religious parties of the Knesset. The party with the second most seats in the coalition is the far-right, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by the contentious Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, who has in the past advocated for the forced eviction of Israel's Arab citizens, has threatened to walk out of the Likud-led coalition if Netanyahu extends the moratorium on building.

In essence, if Netanyahu extends the building freeze, his coalition will dissolve.

Lieberman has effectively threatened the current coalition and crippled the peace process itself with his right-wing agenda. Because his party – which holds 15 seats in the Knesset – can dissolve the coalition single-handedly, Netanyahu will be reluctant to extend the halt on Israeli building in the West Bank. Adding to the untidiness, Abbas stated in his recent speech in Washington D.C. that the Palestinians would walk out of the talks if Netanyahu’s government did not extend the moratorium. Although that position is softening, the fact is that the settlements will have to stop being constructed for there to be a lasting peace.

It is rather ironic that the Israeli people, who have argued for so long that they are battling against religious fundamentalism and not the Palestinian people themselves, are being held hostage by religious extremists within their own government.  

Before the core issues of the conflict – Jerusalem, the “right of return,” water rights, immigration, security, and the Gaza Strip – can even begin to be negotiated, the Israeli and Palestinian camps have to pass the moratorium hurdle. Conflating the issue even further, many Palestinians are involved in the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and suffering a great deal economically because of the freeze.

Even if Abbas and Netanyahu are able to meander through the idiosyncrasies that cripple Israeli politics, there is still the issue of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the nearly 1.5 million people living there. How can there be a peace deal, a “two-state solution,” when a third of the population of the proposed Palestinian state is under the control of a separate and violent regime?

Additionally, the Arab governments of the Middle East must contribute more resources and effort to the peace process for it to succeed in the future. The governments of Jordan and Egypt would have to do more than pledge their support at a White House conference, indulge themselves in a 5-star meal, and head home. They must provide continued political support and commit resources toward security, something neither nation is capable of doing.

But if there is to be a true, “two-state” solution to this conflict, operating without a genuine commitment from the Arab governments of the Middle East will leave the conflict where it’s been for the past 62 years – without a solution.

It is hard not to admire the courage and dedication that President Barack Obama has shown this month to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He has gathered Arab and Israeli leaders and effectively brought them back to the drawing board. But let’s face it; until the Israeli people are freed from the self-destructive precedents that define their government, peace between the two parties will remain an ongoing process.

To reach reporter Benjamin Gottlieb click here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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