Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Can Netanyahu now bring about peace?

Soon after becoming Prime Minister of Israel for a second time in 2009, Benyamin Netanyahu gave a stirring and quite brilliant speech at Bar Ilan University. It’s brilliance stemmed from its delivery, content and timing. For the first time he advocated the two state solution to the Middle East crisis, soon after President Obama gave a speech in Egypt urging progress to be made on the crisis. And in broad terms, he gave hope. However, four years later and having been asked by President Peres to form a second successive government, Prime Minister Netanyahu seemingly has not managed to move the peace plan forward.

On that summer day in 2009, Mr Netanyahu laid down a vision for bringing about peace in the region that had at it’s core a surprising element: the recognition of a Palestinian state. It was, at the time, a significant moment. However, history will probably judge it as a missed opportunity. The region is no closer to peace and the feeling of hope and optimism some felt has vanished. With the tide of support and sentiment having drifted further away from Israel since the beginning of this century, the Prime Minister’s new vision was bringing Israel more in-line with the world view. But he placed a number of conditions to negotiations on the Palestinians that seemed unpalatable to them. Giving up “Right of Return” for the Palestinian refugees, acceptance of a demilitirised state and having no control of their own airspace were some of the major conditions.
The Arab League condemned the speech, unsurprisingly. The EU and U.S. praised the new Prime Minister for taking an important step forward. The speech was also criticised amongst right-wing press in Israel as being too soft and does not “lay down enough conditions” on the Palestinians. But the Swedish Foreign Minister at the time, Carl Bildt, may have got to the crux of the matter when he said “whether what he (Netanyahu) mentioned can be defined as a state is a subject of some debate.” as quoted by Radio France. But none of this would have surprised Mr Netanyahu, who would have expected the Arabs to reject his plans and to be criticised by many others. However, the key was to ensure that his country’s key ally, the U.S., maintained it’s backing of the state. This he achieved.
That is the cynical viewpoint, but is it possible that his first term as head of government was about consolidating power and that his victory now provides us with an optimism that he can move the two state solution forward? “There is no sign that this (Netanyahu election) will make a significant difference at all,” says Chris Doyle, Director at The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (Caabu). “He (Netanyahu) is still committed to the same attitude and policy of expanding settlements.”
The current elections seem to not have been fought on the lines of peace negotiations either. The surprise package of the elections was the new Yesh Atid party, led by the charismatic former television presenter Yair Lapid. With 19 seats in the Knesset, they are now the second largest party and may have a part to play in forming the new coalition government. They also represent a different option to the ruling Likud-Beiteinu alliance or the more right leaning coalition that currently exists. A centre-left party built on the promise of social reform. Peace does not feature within their stated agenda and yet this did not hamper them winning seats. This may indicate that the Israeli populace does not place much importance in peace with the Palestinians. According to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner from The Movement for Reform Judaism, voters “woke up” and remembered “the empowering momentum of tent social protests of summer 2011”. There are too many domestic social issues that take precedence at the moment. Especially with what is essentially a time of relative safety for Israeli people.
Whether by design or accident, the victory of Hamas in Gaza was in fact a victory for Israel, in the same way that legitimising the PLO and Fatah party was advantageous to them. Since gaining power in Gaza, Hamas have become a more conventional enemy, fighting the war as one state against the other. Very few suicide bombings and guerilla tactics are any longer employed. Since the turn of the century, Israelis are 40 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than through conflict. That is a cliched comparison and it shouldn’t belittle a single one of those deaths. But it does highlight why your man in the street of Tel Aviv does not prioritise the peace negotiations and why Mr Netanyahu or any politician may be disincentivised to push peace forward and why Yair Lapid was so enticing.
The truth is, Israeli elections are no longer fought on foreign policy. The parties and candidates are too similar and broadly agree on approach. There appears little willingness to enter negotiations on an equal footing or to put a stop to the main blocker in restarting peace talks: namely the continued expansion of settlements. A recent report by the UN Human Rights Council labelled those settlement activities as “serious breaches” against humanitarian law. “There has been an international consensus against the settlements for years.” says Chris Doyle.  “What has been lacking and  is still lacking is the political will to do anything about this. There is no sign that this is going to change.” But the Palestinian Authority pushing forward its plans for UN recognition is only forcing the Israeli administration to “create an even more hostile environment for peace”, there appears little to be optimistic about.
Where we will be in 4 years time when the next elections come round. Logical thought would make one more inclined to lean towards Chris Doyle’s view that “Whilst it is not impossible there is nothing to suggest an optimistic scenario”. But with the surprising outcome of the recent elections and with the Bar Ilan speech playing in the back of my mind, I am hopeful. But, as Rabbi Laura says, “It's a very cautious hope for change........a change in which the peace process will progress”

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