In The Media

Netanyahu’s swerve to the right could push peace process off the cliff

by Ferry de Kerckhove 

October 31, 2012

It was a sad day for the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) when Benjamin Netanyahu took over as prime minister of Israel, replacing Ehud Olmert — whose personal problems with the law tarnished, maybe for ever, what could have been a lasting contribution to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, on the basis of two states, with borders based on the 1967 lines, and with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.

History repeated itself in a way, if one thinks of the Lewinsky affair preventing a weakened President Bill Clinton from imposing on Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat a similar deal.

Indeed, between the very first utterance by President Barack Obama in his still-famous Cairo speech and the subsequent call for a settlement freeze, going all the way to the incredible scenes of Mr. Netanyahu chastising the president in Washington at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference and on other, equally egregious occasions, it has been made clear that we are seeing one of the worse possible leadership combination for these two close allies — probably exceeding even the bad blood between Clinton and Netanyahu more than a decade earlier.

In the last few years, under the uncompromising leadership of Mr. Netanyahu, the international reputation of Israel has suffered a great deal despite its extraordinary achievements in every realm but peace. But the uncertainties of the Arab Spring, the Iranian threat, the convenient hyphen between Hamas and Fatah, the tendency of Mahmoud Abbas to climb a tree to pluck a non-existent fruit without knowing how to come down, the convenient belief in Palestinian National Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s capacity to create a functional mini-state through reforms over the shifting sands of foreign assistance — all these factors have led most western countries to continue to support the Israeli prime minister despite the growing irksomeness of the man. Admittedly, there is a shared, legitimate and powerful concern for Israel’s security now, underpinning a strategic commitment to the country.

And so we all went along — some more enthusiastically than others, such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and David Jeremiah, the Californian pastor who quotes from ancient scriptures to tie America’s survival to its defense of Israel. And we moved our goalposts at the UN and other international meetings as Mr. Netanyahu changed his.

But today, as any preoccupation with the MEPP has withered away in favour of the Iranian distraction, ably fueled by Netanyahu, and even with a one-state solution now part of the conversation, something has changed with the merger in a single electoral slate of Netanyahu’s Likud and universally-despised Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beiteinu.

This is not to say that electoral politics do not often call for marriages of convenience – and Israel’s political system almost makes these mandatory. But the world needs to take note and react for the sake of Israel. The polarization of Israeli politics may be the least of the negative consequences of this “unholy alliance” —although the shift of Israel’s body politic to the right is disquieting at a time when demography is altering the fragile, yet still democratic fiber of the country.

What is emerging is dangerous not only in terms of Israel’s policy towards Iran under a Netanyahu-Lieberman ticket, even if there is a general consensus that Israel cannot attack Iran without the full support of the U.S.; this development throws any hope of progress in the MEPP in the abyss.

The fluidity and uncertainty in the whole region might buy the coalition some time but, further down the road, the Arab world — which today pays lip service to the Palestinian cause — may be very different and Israel — which we all want to be a positive lightning rod for the region — might regret not having resolved what is, in fact, the simplest issue of all to bring to conclusion.

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