Regrettable. Pathetic. Many adjectives apply to what took place here in Israel last night at the political level:
A party, the very first to do so, signed on to the coalition PM Netanyahu has been working to form: Tzipi Livni's party, Hatnua. Not only has this left-wing party -- with six mandates -- joined, Livni herself will be Justice Minister AND will be responsible for negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs, reporting to the prime minister himself. Netanyahu will lead a ministerial committee on the peace process that will include Livni and the defense and foreign ministers.
Amir Peretz, of Hatnua, will reportedly be given the Environmental Protection portfolio.
Oi vey! To say that this is bad doesn't begin to do justice to the situation. It's infuriating, disappointing, unsettling, and bewildering.
The first question on everyone's lips (perhaps first after "Are you kidding?"), has been, why? Why would Netanyahu join forces with Tzipi Livni? They are working within different political frameworks, and happen to seriously dislike each other (although you wouldn't have known this last night). Why?
There are several answers, somewhat overlapping (which means he might well have weighed multiple factors in having made this decision):
As we are all painfully aware, President Obama is due here in a month. One of his goals is presumed to be encouragement of the "peace process." So, for want of a better phrase that I can use here, we might call this the "Suck up to Obama" gesture.
The fact that Netanyahu didn't just announce Livni's role, but made his own pitch -- "Today Israel extends its hand once more for peace. We want a peace process, and we hope that it will yield results" -- strengthens the impression that "sucking up" is what he's about. Actually, he also said that Livni will be leading talks to "end the conflict once and for all."
It's a bit nauseating, quite frankly. He has outlined parameters that he knows the totally intractable PLO will not accept, and yet he mouths the words, "we hope that it will yield results."
Then there is the issue of Iran -- the security elephant that is always in the room. I've written before about the possibility that Netanyahu might be looking for a quid pro quo here. The idea would be that he would demonstrate "flexibility" on negotiations in return for a toughening of the US stance on Iran.
Is this in his head now? Does it in anyway mitigate the position he has taken?
In real terms, there is no connection between a "peace agreement" with the PLO and taking out Iran's nuclear capability. That the connection has been made in the US again and again means that we have a responsibility to disabuse people of the notion that there is an organic connection between the two. It's not true, for example, that Arab states will only tolerate an attack on Iran if they see progress with the Palestinian Arabs. Nonsense.
Any connection being made here is purely pragmatic -- it would be a deal that says, I do this for you, you do this for me. Nothing more.
But could such a pragmatic deal work?
My first observation here is that, if this is the case, Netanyahu is rushing into this too quickly. Unless -- and I really really doubt this -- there is already an understanding in the works, what Netanyahu is doing can only be seen as premature and over-ambitious. The way to go would be to sit with the president first, provide an offer in terms of what Israel can do to give the president a diplomatic achievement and explore the ways in which Obama is willing to change the US stance on Iran.
But here he is, having put someone who's itching for a "peace agreement" in place before there is any clarity on where Obama stands on this.
Then there is the question of how much "toughening of the US stance" would be sufficient to change the dynamic with Iran. Iranian leaders don't take the US seriously, don't believe Obama would ever attack them. What would Obama have to do to convince them there was the threat of a serious military option backing up the sanctions/negotiations approach? Words alone from him would not do it, and unless the Iranians took the military threat seriously, all the rest would be moot.
Lastly, there is this question, which boils down simply to trusting Obama. Is this in any sense a prudent thing for Netanyahu to do? Certainly Obama has no track record on this. But if Israel advances peace negotiations in expectation of a political/diplomatic/military return...?
Lastly, we can see here internal political machinations.
I have been diligent in not repeating rumors that have been floating with regard to Netanyahu's formation of a coalition -- precisely because they are unreliable rumors that change by the hour. But at the heart of the matter is the fact that the prime minister is having trouble negotiating with Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi (to the right of Likud), and Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid (somewhat centrist).
The simplistic overview: Bennett and Lapid, separately and together, have been demanding that Netanyahu negotiate seriously with regard to issues; they want to know where he stands before joining the government. A prime concern of theirs is the drafting of haredim. They complain that Netanyahu only wants to talk about who gets which job, and that there is a lack of serious negotiations. Certainly, Netanyahu dragged his feet in meeting with Bennett, in a manner that might be said to be rude. But once they met, the scuttlebutt was that tensions between them -- which had a long history -- had been mitigated. Who knows. Certainly it is the case that Lapid allowed his electoral victory go to his head, so that he made inappropriate statements, which undoubtedly irked Netanyahu (with reason).
Whatever the case here, a lot of tension and no coalition.
The rumors have it that Bennett and Lapid have forged an agreement that either they both go into the coalition or neither does. Don't know if this is literally true, or if there is a more general "simpatico" feeling between them. But if there is such an agreement, the intent is to squeeze Netanyahu and to refuse to allow him to take either party for granted.
And so, some analysts see the way Netanyahu has brought in Livni as being a retort to Bennett and Lapid: You don't want to play? I'll move left and make you less important.
Or, conversely, he might be trying to make them feel that they'd better join before they become irrelevant.
He's playing a game, not with Obama, but within Israeli political circles. Here it's "stick it to them." But the prime minister may be too slick for his own good. Bennett has now said that Livni's placement makes it less likely that he'll join the coalition.
For the record: If Netanyahu takes in Kadima, Shas, and United Torah Judaism, he would still be short of the necessary 60+ mandates without either Bennett or Lapid. He needs them.
Unless he takes in Labor. Head of this party Shelly Yachimovich has said she won't sit with Netanyahu. Were she to change her mind, there would truly be a left wing government, forged by a prime minister who is supposed to be right wing.
And there's the rub: Netanyahu has lost credibility with this gambit, whatever his intentions. Many people are furious with him, feeling that he cannot be relied upon to represent the concerns of the very people who vote for his party.
What we have yet to see play out (if it will in public) is the full response of the right wing within Likud, which was actually strengthened in the last elections. They too feel betrayed by how their leader is acting..
Worst of all is the way in which Netanyahu has reversed himself. There are multiple sources attesting to the fact that before the elections he had said that Livni would have no part in negotiations with the PLO in the next election.
There is, for example, Gilad Erdan, Minister of the Environment, who said that Netanyahu had personally assured him that Livni "will not take part in any negotiations with the Palestinians."
As to Livni herself, I will say that I consider her to be a disaster as a politician/diplomat. She has repeatedly been involved in decisions that have proved detrimental to Israel. Many remember her for her role in promoting the "disengagement" -- the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
I always associate her with Resolution 1701: the Security Council resolution of 2006, which brought a stop to our war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and called for a UN force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, to prevent the re-arming of Hezbollah. She called this a "diplomatic victory." Yea, right. Israel trusting the UN for protection. Hezbollah has huge quantities of weapons today, brought in from Syria under the watchful eyes of UNIFIL.
Once, when she gave a talk as foreign minister, I walked out. I could not bear her explanation that we, in essence, had to give away part of our land because it was important that the world like us.
Livni has done her own about-face, or several of them, actually. After the elections, she implored Lapid and Yachimovich to join with her against a Likud-Beitenu coalition, because Netanyahu was unsuitable to be prime minister. For a full recounting of the several ways in which she has seriously reversed herself, see:
Of course, she is making a big deal about the fact that she is willing to reverse herself now for the good of the country.
There are those who are referring to Livni as a fig leaf, saying that Netanyahu is using her in order to give the appearance of moving on negotiations, and nothing more. She has alluded to this term herself, saying, "I will not be a fig leaf for Netanyahu's policies," and insisting that her role is a real one.
The last question to be asked now is how much damage she can do, either as a powerless fig leaf or more.
Let me make it very clear that I do not for a single instant believe that Livni can accomplish successful negotiations. This is first because of the Palestinian Arabs, who are not in a negotiating mood and have never been in conciliatory mood.
They continue to demand release of all prisoners, freeze of all construction beyond the Green Line, and agreement that the starting point for talks is the '67 line -- all before they even come to the table. They want half of Jerusalem (for starters), and "return of refugees" to boot. They will not consider any proposal that would be even half-way acceptable to any Israeli sitting at the table with them.
A settlement is not what they're after. And to make even small concessions would brand them traitors in today's radical environment within the Arab world.
On our side, we must remember that Netanyahu -- who has put forth such parameters as the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state, and that a Palestinian state be de-militarized -- will have the last word.
Not only that, if you noted carefully what has been proposed, the prime minister will head a ministerial committee on negotiations that includes the foreign minister and the defense minister. Livni would sit across the table from Saeb Erekat or whomever, but she would hardly have unilateral decision-making power.
Avigdor Lieberman, who will return as foreign minister if he defeats his legal problems, would not be disposed to serious negotiations. We have to see who becomes defense ministry (this is something to worry about). But it's difficult to impossible to imagine a government in formation that would sign off on the parameters for negotiations that Ehud Olmert approved as prime minister, which is when Livni last negotiated.
But, this said and done, there is still the chance for Livni to do damage. To make proposals that concede too much, to make public statements that should not be made, to lend a tone to the matter that does not reflect our strength.
And so, we have one piece of the puzzle now and yet are still in a waiting game. Word is that Shas is going to sign on next.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.
If it is reproduced and emphasis is added, the fact that it has been added must be noted.