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The diplomatic process is not real until this government falls

If Netanyahu was serious about talks, he would have used the first opportunity to rid the government of the settlers, before moving on to isolate the radicals in his own party. Until we see such a change, the peace process will remain mostly fake.

Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth’s released a poll on Passover evening examining the option that former Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon run on his own ticket in the coming elections. According to the poll results, Kahlon could win up to 10 seats, most of them from voters of Yesh Atid and Likud.

This is the second election poll published this week (the previous one had better numbers for Netanyahu), contributing to a feeling of a looming political crisis. The rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett is becoming more apparent. Bennett is now threatening to leave the government if Israel goes forward with the fourth and final prisoner release, which includes 14 Palestinians citizens of Israel, as demanded by Mahmoud Abbas. Recently, there have been renewed suggestions that a deal on the prisoner release and the continuation of the negotiations will take place, with the U.S. releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as a gesture toward Netanyahu.

Bennett, to be sure, doesn’t want to leave the government; his top minister, Uri Ariel, who heads the Ministry of Construction and Housing, is even less inclined to do so. The Israeli government is based on a political arrangement that suits the settlers well – they support measures on civilian issues that benefit Yair Lapid’s secular voters, and in exchange they get an (almost) free hand in the West Bank. Uriel, a veteran politician, knows that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create facts on the ground that would end, once and for all, all talk of evacuating West Bank settlements. Despite his radical views, he has welcomed the diplomatic process; while everybody was busy with the talks, he continued settling occupied land with Jews.

At the same time, the Jewish Home has a constituency to answer to, and the settler movement is split between the pragmatics and the radicals, the latter of which are not interested in such trade offs. This is the context with which we should view the recent threats: Bennett is probably betting that the Pollard–prisoners-negotiations deal won’t go through and that talks won’t be extended. Thus, he will be seen as the one who took a firm stance against capitulations without actually paying the price for it. This is indeed the most likely scenario.

Read +972′s full coverage of the peace process

The problem with the talks isn’t the prisoner issue, but rather the Israeli refusal to discuss the meaningful elements of a deal – borders, settlements and Jerusalem. Instead, Netanyahu has been throwing all kinds of hurdles, such as the recognition of a Israel as a “Jewish State,” as well as indefinite Israeli control over the eastern border of a future Palestinian entity, and so on. By now it is clear even to the Americans that accepting Netanyahu’s demand on one issue – such as the Jewish State – won’t deliver a breakthrough, but will simply lead to the next “core issue” that Bibi introduces.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (photo: Koby Gidon / Government Press Office)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (photo: Koby Gidon / Government Press Office)

Netanyahu doesn’t want to change the government. An alternative coalition – for example, with Labor replacing the Jewish Home – will leave Netanyahu at the mercy of his rivals, and would probably lead to new elections in the near future. But things might get out of control, especially if outside pressure increases. The Israeli elites are clearly troubled by the EU’s response in case the talks collapse.

Should progress be made on the Palestinian issue, a political crisis in Israel is inevitable. This is the way it has always gone: Rabin lost part of his coalition – and then his life – following the signing of the Oslo Accords; Sharon had to leave Likud and form a new party; and Netanyahu’s first government collapsed over the Wye River Memorandum. Any change in the status quo, one that goes beyond empty gestures like the release of prisoners, is likely to energize what is already a powerful hard right. If Netanyahu was serious about the talks, he would have used the first opportunity to rid the government of Bennett and the settlers, before moving on to isolate the settlers in his own party. Until we see such a change, the process will remain mostly fake.

One last comment: When looking at the Israeli political system, the feeling is that there is no alternative to Bibi. However, one opposition MK I spoke to recently said that “Bibi is done. It’s over.” Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But he may not be that wrong. The current coalition is weak – much weaker than the previous one, and the only thing that holds it together is the fear that Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni share from the possibility of holding elections. If Israel is faced with a real decision moment on the Palestinian issue – something Kerry has failed to deliver so far – major political developments will take place. Politicians who see themselves as an alternative to Bibi – from Kahlon to former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin to Liberman – have become more vocal, as they too sense that this moment may be closer than one might think.

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    1. Kolumn9

      I agree with the political analysis, though of course I disagree about the terms used. Releasing 14 murderers has nothing to do with the diplomatic process. The demand is one designed to extort concessions from Israel in return for nothing. If Bibi goes along with the extortion he will have opened the road up to even more egregious extortion in the future and once again while getting nothing in return. As long as the ‘diplomatic process’ is simply a means of obtaining Iaraeli concessions while the Palestinians reject any and every framework presented to them, like the one Kerry presented, there is no good reason for Israel to pay any price for Palestinian intransigence.

      I think Bennett isn’t going to leave the government but what he is doing is ensuring that Bibi looks like a weak sellout if he releases the murdeters. I doubt Bibi will want to go into elections on that note. Bennett would gain seats while the right and Bibi might lose power. That would be a bad outcone for both Bibi and Bennett, but while Bibi can compromise here Bennett has climbed a proverbial tree. Were we to go to elections it would mean that the release of the terrorists is off until after elections are held. That would be at least 3 months down the line + 2 months to form a government. In the meantime the process would be dead in the water which the Americans would probably not like, especially since the polls suggest the next government would likely look very similar to the current one, solving nothing. Additionally the Likud would be forced into a commitment to not release terrorists as part of its campaign. Bibi can’t run as Mr. Security while releasing terrorists. As Bibi dislikes political uncertainty he will probably look for a way to get the Palestinians to reject a compromise deal as a means of holding together his coalition. Perhaps he will insist on permanent exile for the released terrorists. Or maybe he will insist on the Palestinians agreeing to Kerry’s framework as a condition for release/continued negotiations. Let’s see the Americans publically condemn that one. In any case he has no real alternative to Bennett at the moment thanks to Labor rejecting providing him with support and Shas being unlikely to sit in a coalition with Lapid.

      In other words, Bennett is highly likely to get his way. Also, Bennett is not Geula Cohen. He is trying to present an alternative to the Likud, not to head a sectoral party. He is doing a decent job in doing that so far and polling around 15 seats at the moment. I can’t imagine Bibi or the Likud would really want to give him much more ammunition in preparation for the next election. That means the Likud itself is likely to swing towards Bennett on this issue. Livni might leave the government over this since the negotiations are what she ran on, though that means her party is probably finished while the coalition still has 61 MKs so I don’t know what value that has, and that is before taking into account that leaving the government because of an insistence on releasing terrorists is not going to win her any voters. Lapid is not in a good position to go to elections. He will lose half his seats (more if Kahlon runs) and his voters are overwhelmingly against freeing terrorists and skeptical on the ‘process’. Lapid is more likely to swing towards Bennett on this one as well, if Bibi and the Likud do so.

      Watch for heavy American pressure on the Palestinians, because pressure on Bibi isn’t going to work under these circumstances. The other option is still that Labor replaces Bennett in the government, though I doubt Bibi/Liberman would see that as a good one, but it is a way to square this circle temporarily. I don’t really see other options, though this is Israel, so who knows?

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    2. Rehmat

      Bibi, like Begin has never been serious about peace in the Middle East because no Zionist radical leader would like to lose billions of dollars annual US aid to a tiny rich entity. Bibi and his Likud warmongers are good at fabricating lies to keep the region burning.

      First the American Jewish academic Richard Falk was chased as “anti-Israel” for exposing Israeli ethnic-cleansing – now Dr. Rima Khalaf has been put in Falk’s shoes for telling the truth.


      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      There will be NO CHANGE in Israeli policy without an electoral effort.

      5-10 seats to the left, a gradual change, achieved by effective campaigning (developing platform, and communicating), can achieve that.

      The open field that the right has in making its argument of fear and greed (the likud formula), is a gift that the left has allowed.

      Reply to Comment