Four years ago, before the last election, one could have made an argument that a center-right government was more able to make peace than a leftist one. A right-wing government could more easily sell a peace agreement to the Israeli people who would more readily accept that it protected their interests. The history of Begin’s peace agreement with Egypt supported this idea.
Indeed, even after the election, Netanyahu took important steps that indicated that he was open to such a direction. His Bar Ilan speech accepting the principle of two states for two peoples, and the subsequent 10-month settlement freeze were important overtures to try to resume the negotiations that were so close to fruition when Ehud Olmert was forced from office under a cloud of scandal.
Yet Netanyahu never succeeded in bringing Abbas and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, and that requires explanation. There are two ways to understand what happened with Abbas, and in my opinion, either interpretation leads to support for the center-left parties in the upcoming election.
The first possibility is that the Palestinians are not really ready to make peace. They used the Annapolis process to pocket Israeli concessions, but never had any intention of accepting any deal. They won’t come to the table now because they know it won’t get them any more concessions. I do not accept this version of events, but I can see why it seems likely to many Israelis. Israeli frustration with Palestinians failure to reach an agreement is not without basis.
However, if this is the case, the correct path for Israel is still to act as Kadima did and push the peace process forward as publicly as possible. This helps solidify our international position as the party ready to make peace and helps us get the support we need from other countries on strategic threats like Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. The Kadima-led government had a lot more leeway in Operation Cast Lead, than the Likud-led government got for Pillar of Defense. If the Palestinians aren’t going to agree to any deal anyway, continuing to talk to them has no downside, and only upside in terms of our international position.
Another way to try and understand the events of the past few years is to try and analyze Abbas’ strategy. As he sees it, there are two paths to Palestinian statehood: they can either reach an agreement with Israel, or build an international coalition to force Israel into accepting their state. Reaching an agreement with Israel is quicker, but will force him into greater concessions than waiting for the international community. If Abbas believes he can get a fair deal from Israel, he will negotiate. If not, he is better off building the institutions of the state, and working on the international stage. Even if eventually he does get back to negotiations, the international standing he receives will put him in a better bargaining position. This explains why Abbas was willing to negotiation with Kadima, but won’t sit down with the Likud.
The Netanyahu government’s response was to try and call his bluff. By creating a right-wing coalition, rather than a centrist one, Netanyahu limited what concessions he could give in negotiations. He thereby challenged Abbas to rally the international community to his cause, believing he would fail and would have to come back to negotiate from a weaker position.
With the recent vote at the UN, that counter-strategy has failed. Abbas showed his hand, and he is not bluffing. Even Israeli allies like France voted for the Palestinian bid, which won 138-8. Netanyahu’s mild punitive reaction to open plans to build in E1 were met with wall-to-wall international condemnation. We are deluding ourselves if we think we can continue on this path and not risk international isolation.
A Likud government, theoretically, could turn this around, and perhaps even be more successful than a leftist goverment in bringing a peace treaty. However, with Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger and the Likud primary behind us, we know that Netanyahu has no moderates left in his camp to make that happen. The right-wing government that is on its way to getting elected will continue thumb its nose at the international community, playing to a local audience with a chorus of “Um, Shmum” in the background.
The only way forward is to elect someone else, and as unlikely as that seems right now, we need to try. The alternative, which seems to be coming at us like an oncoming train, is a Palestinian state dictated by an angry international community on a recalcitrant Israeli government.