Listen to Livni, understand Israel’s dilemma

The current crisis with the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas has returned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to his comfort zone. With his always-eloquent English, Bibi took to the international airwaves to condemn Mr. Abbas for inching closer to Hamas. Hitting major outlets one after the other, Bibi unleashed yet another sharpened message well designed for western listeners: You wouldn’t talk to Hamas, a group who condemned the U.S. for killing Bin Laden, neither would we.

In times like these, Bibi simply thrives: explaining to the world why Israel is just, and the Palestinians, in whatever combination they represent themselves in, are not. There is no denying that most Jewish Israelis, whether they vote Likud or not, adore him during these moments, appreciating their leader’s ability to stand up for Israel on the world stage. To the majority of them, he almost always delivers.

But whether Netanyahu’s message resonates within the undecided majority in foreign audiences is a different question. While his arguments are valid, it is reasonable to assume that some of these elements are becoming impatient with his pessimistic, almost predictable rhetoric. After a total of eight years in office, Bibi’s blame game against the Palestinians is being played so well, it risks shuttering the world’s window into the genuine attitudes of the Israeli populace toward the peace process.

The sentiments of Tzipi Livni, former Likud rightist-turned-chief peace negotiator, epitomize the far more complex viewpoints of today’s moderate Israeli on how to settle the Palestinian issue. During an interview on Israel’s Channel Two news last week, Livni explained in heart-wrenching candor why she is opting to stay in Netanyahu’s cabinet, even though it seems she’s out of a job. As the host Yonit Levy said, there’s no need for a chief negotiator when there are no negotiations.

To think that just 18 months ago it was Livni who started a new centrist party to run in the 2013 Knesset election, in a stated mission to fill the void of a suitable alternative to Netanyahu, particularly on foreign policy. During her campaign, she accused other centrist and leftist parties of essentially shying away from the peace process, charging they would have no quarrels with joining a future coalition with Netanyahu the rejectionist.

Put Livni’s recent interview in this context and the dissonance will reveal the unabashedly cynical nature of Israeli politics, but also explain the mounting calls for her and her centrist counterpart Yair Lapid to exit Netanyahu’s coalition. During elections, both Livni and Lapid claimed their respective parties would not sit in a government which does not negotiate with the Palestinians. Thier refusal to do so in the face of current stalemate naturally gave way to the traditional flood of cynicism and sarcasm from the Israeli pundit-sphere, some citing Livni’s own protege Ariel Sharon when he said “it’s good to be a minister.” But that’s not the important part of this story.

Petty politics aside, Livni’s attempts to explain her decision to remain in Netanyahu’s government represent a much larger dilemma resonating among Israel’s centrists. Mainly, she avoided a straight answer as to whether or not Mr. Abbas is a genuine partner for peace, stating only that it “remains to be seen.” She also said that Mr. Abbas was (twice) responsible for a last-minute-sabotage of recent efforts to put the process back on track. But most importantly, Livni stated that she and the Prime Minister may have their differences, but also managed to reach unified stances which “she could live with”.

For a politician who since 2009 slammed Netanyahu’s unwillingness to go forward with the peace process, this statement shouldn’t be taken lightly. Livni’s remarks highlight that the internal debate in Israel about the peace process is becoming largely rhetorical, and that most Israelis from the right to the center-left alike seriously question whether or not they have a real peace partner among any of the Palestinians’ current leaders, particularly in Mr. Abbas.

This does not mean that the end has come to the decades-long rift between right and left in Israel regarding the future of relations with the Palestinians. To the contrary: without a perceived viable partner for peace negotiations, it now comes down to what politicians like Livni on the one hand, and Naftali Bennett on the other, have to offer the Israeli public as an alternative to the two-state solution. Livni, a co-founder of former P.M. Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party, believes in unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. Bennett, his national-religious party and growing segments within the Likud, advocate partial annexation of the West Bank and limited autonomy for the Palestinians there.

The more Netanyahu and Abbas let the current peace process slip away, the more these alternatives will take center stage in Israel’s internal policy debate. But for now, Livni’s cautious statements to Hebrew media tell the story of the Israeli public’s dilemma far better than Netanyahu’s polished English. International stakeholders in the Middle East peace process should pay close attention to this trend, and prepare accordingly for increasingly unilateral Israeli policies in the future.

About the Author
Ron Gilran is the COO at Levantine Group, a Tel Aviv based risk-consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter @RonGilran.​