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February 13, 2009

Rightward Shift in Israeli Polls Creates New Headaches

by Jim Lobe

The strong showing by right-wing parties in Israel's elections is likely to create new obstacles to U.S. President Barack Obama's hopes for achieving a swift and substantial progress, if not a breakthrough, in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, according to most experts here.

While the precise composition of the government that will emerge from Tuesday's balloting will probably take weeks, possibly months, to work out, it appears clear that right-wing parties, led by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, will hold a majority of the non-Arab seats in the new Knesset.

Israeli President Shimon Peres will have to decide whether Netanyahu or Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima Party barely edged out Likud in the total number of candidates elected, should be given the first opportunity to form a government.

But most analysts here believe that the Likud leader has the greater chance of success, either in forming a government of national unity – his declared preference – or one with a narrower ideological base.

Aside from praise for the election itself, U.S. officials have been predictably tight-lipped about what they think of the results. However, it has been clear for some time that the new administration of President Barack Obama would have preferred a clear victory for the current coalition dominated by Kadima and the Labor Party over one by Likud and parties to the right of it, particularly the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), which displaced Labor as the country's third biggest party.

While all of the major parties strongly supported Israel's recent three-week military campaign in Gaza, Kadima and Labor are on record as supporting, at least in principle, a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict based on giving up almost all of the West Bank and at least part of East Jerusalem, as well.

Netanyahu opposes both Palestinian statehood and any territorial concessions on the West Bank and Jerusalem, offering the Palestinians instead an "economic peace." He also opposes a freeze on Israeli settlement activity.

Obama has not only repeatedly expressed his own support for a two-state solution, but has also stressed the growing urgency of achieving a settlement, not only for the purpose of ending the 60-year conflict, but also to restore Washington's greatly diminished credibility in the Arab and Islamic worlds where views of the U.S. fell to all-time lows during the reign of his predecessor, George W. Bush, in part due to his steadfast support for Israel.

Indeed, within two days of his inauguration, Obama named former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and headed a widely praised commission that recommended ways to reduce violence between Israelis and Palestinians during the Second Intifada in 2000 and 2001, as his "Special Envoy" to "actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors."

Within a week of his appointment, Mitchell had traveled to the region and is still expected to return later this month, despite the election results and the uncertainty they have created.

While Mitchell can still deal with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and there remains hope that, even as a lame duck, Olmert could strike an Egyptian-mediated deal with Hamas that would stabilize the situation in Gaza, analysts here consider it very unlikely that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) can make any headway at all until a new government takes power.

Mitchell's task was already considered daunting given the bitter split on the Palestinian side between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the U.S.-backed PA, which controls the West Bank. But the election results in Israel are likely to make it much harder, because a coalition government, even if headed by Livni, will almost certainly have to include Likud, and a right-wing government will likely reject negotiations based on an eventual two-state solution.

Neither Kadima nor Likud could form a government "that would have much receptivity to a major negotiation effort," Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and member of the dovish Israel Policy Forum (IPF) told the Los Angeles Times.

"I think it's going to be really tough, because in addition to a ...divided Palestinian national movement ...you now have to add to that, although the crisis isn't the same order of magnitude, an Israeli divided house," according to Aaron Miller, a veteran U.S. Mideast peace negotiator now with the Woodrow Wilson Center here. "And broken houses in the Middle East don't lead to bold and historic decisions."

"George Mitchell is an extraordinary negotiator, a talented man. I have profound respect for him," Miller told public television's Newshour. "But the Obama administration is all dressed up, but there's nowhere right now for them to go."

Marc Ginsburg, a former ambassador to Morocco, agreed, writing in the Huffington Post that "both Israelis and Palestinians are increasingly caught in a vortex of radicalism that is marginalizing the so-called silent majorities on both sides who recognize there is no hope for peace without a two-state solution. That is why the dynamics of the equation must change, and can only change with creative persistence diplomacy, and, yes, new approaches that require hard choices."

Some analysts, however, believe the dynamics could indeed change, particularly if Netanyahu forms a solidly right-wing government, and Obama is willing to take him on, much as former President George H.W. Bush took on former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

"It will be easier for President Obama to deal with Netanyahu than with the almost equally hawkish Livni because... her seeming moderation is a nice cover," wrote the IPF's M.J. Goldberg. "A Netanyahu government would have no such cover, (and) any acts of sabotage to the peace process or new misery inflicted on the Palestinians would likely be strongly opposed by the United States. Israel's most slavish 'friends' in Congress – almost all Democrats – would find it hard, although far from impossible, to choose Netanyahu (who is very close to Republicans) over Obama."

"I think the best path towards peace would be for Netanyahu to form a right-wing government because it will make clear that the Israelis and Palestinians can't make peace by themselves," said Steve Clemons, head of the American Strategy program at the New America Foundation.

"A right-wing government in Israel will show that the only way to purge what has become an increasingly destructive geo-strategic ulcer is for the United States, Europe, the U.N., Russia, and key Arab stakeholders to coalesce around a two-state solution whose outlines are already well known, and impose it."

"The U.S. and the much of the rest of the world simply can't afford the recklessness, immaturity and sheer stupidity of leadership on all sides of the conflict to continue," he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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