Israel’s Lurch to the Right Could Be Far Indeed

EAST JERUSALEM – The continuing efforts by Israel’s presumptive next prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to assemble a rightwing-dominated government have sparked serious concern about the effects such a government might have on peace efforts with the Palestinians.

In addition, the fact that Netanyahu has invited Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the openly anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party, to join the government has sparked fears that this government might take harsh actions against the Palestinian Arabs who form over 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry.

Netanyahu’s invitation to Lieberman has also raised the question of whether a government containing Lieberman should be treated any differently than governments elsewhere that might contain racists like the Austrian Joerg Haider or the French Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Netanyahu and his Likud Party have nearly always been strongly opposed to the peace process that ensued from the Oslo Agreement of 1993. When Netanyahu was premier before, from 1996 to 1999, he grudgingly accepted some of Oslo’s working premises. But then and now he remained quite opposed to the idea of an independent Palestinian state emerging in the West Bank and Gaza and worked hard to accelerate the implantation of Israeli settlers into the West Bank, an act that is unequivocally illegal under international law. In a meeting with visiting U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell on Thursday, Netanyahu reportedly declared that his future government would abide by Israel’s international commitments. But he did not specify any of these commitments by name.

Nine miles away from Jerusalem, in an interview Tuesday in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayad defined the PA’s three conditions for resuming any peace talks with a new Israeli government.

“First, there has to be a complete freeze on the building of settlements everywhere in the occupied territories, including in East Jerusalem, and the removal of illegal settlement outposts,” he told IPS. “This is what the 2002 Road Map dictated, and it was reaffirmed at the Annapolis meeting of November 2007.

“Secondly, Israel has to stop its incursions into the Palestinian areas defined as ‘Areas A and B’ under Oslo and withdraw its security forces in the West Bank to the positions they occupied on September 28, 2000, before the Second Intifada began. We’ve proven we have restored law and order in the Palestinian areas, so they have no reason to intervene.”

“Thirdly, they need to implement their commitments under the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which governs access in and out of Gaza, access between Gaza and the West Bank, and the lifting of all roadblocks within the West Bank.”

“The first two of these conditions are non-negotiable for us,” he said. “The third one needs some further interpretation.”

Fayad was installed as PA prime minister by President Mahmoud Abbas on an emergency basis back in June 2007, after forces loyal to the U.S.-backed Abbas were forcibly evicted from Gaza by forces loyal to the elected Hamas government.

Fayad is not a member of either movement. He said he supports the effort now being made by the Egyptian government to broker a working entente between the two big Palestinian movements. He argued that, whether Egypt’s effort succeeds or not, the Palestinians need to hold a new round of both parliamentary and presidential elections as soon as possible, to generate a new, legitimate leadership and to halt the continued deepening of the administrative and social divide between Gaza and the West Bank.

Fayad’s preconditions for new peace talks seem unlikely to be met by a Netanyahu government. (Fayad admitted that even the outgoing government led by Ehud Olmert, considered significantly less hawkish and less pro-settlements than Netanyahu, had actually accelerated the settlement-building program since Annapolis, when Olmert agreed to call a near-complete halt to the whole project.)

Meanwhile in Israel, negotiations continued over the make-up of the next government. Lieberman has reportedly been seeking to cash in on the “kingmaker” status his party achieved by winning 15 seats in the incoming Knesset by demanding five seats in the cabinet, including either the finance or the foreign affairs portfolio.

Lieberman has recently started presenting himself as notably more supportive of a Palestinian state than Netanyahu. But he remains a strong supporter of continuing to build settlements, so it is unclear what territories would be left for a Palestinian state.

Lieberman has also called for severing from Israel some of the parts of its land that are peopled primarily by ethnic Palestinians, and handing them over to the new Palestinian state, thus leaving Israel as more strongly Jewish than it is now. He makes no mention of consulting over this move with the Palestinian Israelis involved.

His desire for a more starkly Jewish-dominated political system in Israel is linked to the calls he has issued for all citizens to be required to take an oath of loyalty to Israel “as a Jewish state.” Back in 2006, he openly called for the execution of any Arab Knesset member who meets with Hamas; and at Yisrael Beiteinu rallies young supporters openly shout “Death to the Arabs” without any party elders intervening to quiet them.

Lieberman has described the “loyalty oath” he calls for as similar to the loyalty oaths that many western countries require of new immigrants when they become citizens. (He himself immigrated to Israel from Moldova at age 20, in 1978.)

Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian-Israeli member of the Israeli Knesset who has been a frequent target of Lieberman’s wrath, rejects that comparison. “In Europe or America, those oaths are required when new citizens come voluntarily into the state. We never ‘came into’ Israel. We were here all along, and the state of Israel came forcibly into our lives… Lieberman himself is the immigrant who now comes in and directs his racism against the indigenous people here.”

Tibi, like many other Palestinian Israelis and some members of the now deeply fragmented Israeli peace movement, called loudly for any government containing Lieberman to be boycotted internationally. “But at least,” he said, “if he does win his goal of becoming foreign minister the true face of Israel’s society would be shown to the world.”

Netanyahu’s efforts to form a governing coalition continue. He is in a strong position and has several different options, though excluding Lieberman’s party from the government would be hard, given the party’s weight in the Knesset. There remains a question whether Netanyahu will offer to Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, the outgoing foreign minister, and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, the outgoing defense minister, terms that they and their parties can accept.

But even if both these parties join the coalition, it will still be a strongly rightwing, pro-settlements government. This, at a time when on the PA side, there seems a real chance that Fatah and Hamas can finally reach enough of an entente to allow a joint position toward the peace negotiations to emerge.

Achievement of this degree of intra-Palestinian reconciliation would give Sen. Mitchell something to work with in his peace efforts. But given Israel’s continued strong lurch to the right and its long existing record of non-compliance with the requirements of the Road Map and Annapolis, a resumption merely of diplomatic “business as before” no longer looks like a workable option.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at