…Bibi One More Time?
Six months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party joined the centrist party Kadima to make a broad super-coalition that comprised 96 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s legislative body, the Knesset. The center-right coalition fell through within seventy days. On October 25, Likud joined forces with the hyper-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party in preparation for the upcoming elections on January 22. Together, they currently have 42 seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu explained the merger by saying “we [members of the two parties] are asking the public for a mandate to deal with the security threats, at the top of which is stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and fighting terrorism.”
Given the public’s fears about the danger of a nuclear Iran, it appears increasingly likely that Netanyahu will be re-elected. But what would this Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu government do with its mandate? It is possible to analyze the speeches and previous legislative actions of both parties, taking into account the nuanced positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Deputy Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to anticipate what policies this government would promote. A Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition will likely lead to a continued impasse with Palestinian leaders and a more hawkish military strategy. The potential consequences include further friction with the Obama administration and policies that may make Israel more isolated in the international community than ever before.
Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu hhave fundamentally different stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much of modern Israeli political discourse regarding the issue focuses on the idea of a two-state solution where a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel. Palestinians have called for Israel to cede all of the territory it conquered in the 1967 war, but Israel has been hesitant to give up this land because of Israeli settlement activity, annexed territory, and concerns about the ability to defend its borders. . Ultimately, the main issues hindering a two-state solution are the status of Jerusalem (which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital) and a resolution of the Palestinian demand for a aaaright of return for the approximately five million descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled during the outbreak of war following Israel’s founding.
The parties have different stances on how to approach the peace process. Yisrael Beiteinu is a hyper-nationalist party made up largely of Russian immigrants. The party supports Jewish settlement of the West Bank, vows of allegiance from all citizens to the state, and national military or civil service. One somewhat radical position of the party platform is its call for land swaps based on ethnicity. This would mean transferring certain Arab-majority areas to Palestinian sovereignty and annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel. Some have called this plan racist; others have called it innovative and pragmatic. Yisrael Beiteinu’s founder, Deputy Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believes the creation of two ethnically pure states is the best way to bring about a lasting peace and minimize each nation’s internal strife. This position is based on Lieberman’s belief that Israeli Arabs identify mostly with Palestinian nationalism. As a result, he has advocated that Israeli Arabs take loyalty oaths or lose their right to vote and has suggested that Israel prosecute Israeli-Arab congressmen that have met with the terrorist organization Hamas.
The Likud platform also supports settlement of the West Bank, which the party considers to be a realization of Zionist values through the repopulation of historically Jewish lands. Likud considers Jerusalem to be the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, making a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem very unlikely. Its platform is against the creation of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.
However, Netanyahu has broken from the platform by supporting a two-state solution, saying in June 2009 that he would support the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Earlier this year, Netanyahu sent an official diplomatic letter to the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, expressing hope for a negotiated settlement. Nothing came of it.
Lieberman has a strong distaste for Abbas, repeatedly calling for his removal or resignation. His stance would make a peace agreement with the PA even more unlikely. Given that Abbas is a relatively moderate Palestinian leader (compared with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh), this is very problematic; Lieberman’s stance may destroy any chance of progress toward a two-state solution. On the other hand, one aspect of a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu government is its originality and dissimilarity to previous Israeli governments, as Lieberman’s opinions are innovative and somewhat distinct from mainstream Israeli political discourse. Ultimately, the impasse in peace negotiations with the Palestinians can only be settled by innovative compromise, which Yisrael Beiteinu may be able to provide. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu will have to make compromises on settlement expansion if a viable two-state solution is to be reached.
A pressing issue of the conflict is Israel’s response to Palestine’s successful pursuit of non-member observer status at the United Nations. In response to the UN bid, which Lieberman called a “diplomatic terror,” Netanyahu announced an expansion of settlements in the E1 development region, which would effectively separate Ramallah and Bethlehem from East Jerusalem and make any kind of contiguous state virtually impossible. This is a potentially severe blow to the two-state solution. The Obama administration condemned the move as counterproductive to the peace process, and it is unclear whether Netanyahu intends to use this building plan merely as a threat or if the settlement will actually be developed. It remains to be seen whether the Netanyahu-Lieberman government will take such a drastic step away from a peace agreement. Ultimately, for a two-state solution to come into effect, E1 must not be settled.
Another important foreign policy issue for Israelis, if not the most important, is Iran. At the moment, Lieberman believes in the efficacy of sanctions to prevent Iran’s attainment of nuclear arms. He has said, "Based on my conversations with people who visit Iran, if you held a referendum - the nuclear program or quality of life - 70 to 80 percent would choose the second option. It's not that they're opposed to the nuclear program, but they aren't willing to pay these crazy prices." In addition to suggesting that the Iranian regime may crumble under diplomatic pressure, Lieberman believes that if protests break out in Iran again, as they did in 2009, the West must support the protesters and encourage the government’s overthrow.
While some portray Lieberman as a warmonger and hawk, he believes war with Iran could prove catastrophic. Earlier this year, he said war would "be a nightmare," leaving "no one...unscathed." He added that, “the right way to prevent [war] is to present a solid unified front of the international community,” and expressed support for sanctions in an interview with Yediot Aharonot, a Tel Aviv newspaper. In some ways, this represents a more apprehensive attitude toward war with Iran than that of others in Netanyahu’s administration. Retiring defense minister Ehud Barak has said, "there's no chance…for 500,000 killed, not 5,000 or even 500 killed," minimizing the negative consequences of a war.If this The Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint-government appears more hesitant about striking Iran, making unilateral Israeli military action less likely.
Regardless of his defense minister’s position, Netanyahu seems to agree with Lieberman that war with Iran is a potentially disastrous option. Despite his reputation as a war hawk, Netanyahu’s response to Iran has in reality been measured and cautious. He has been sensitive to the necessity of getting American support for a strike on Iran and using non-military options, like sanctions, to persuade Iran to cease its nuclear program. This diplomatic approach has had some success: Several European nations have agreed to put sanctions on Iran, causing Iran’s economy serious harm. Netanyahu was able to bide his time during his first term, but as Iran nears bomb capability, he will be more pressed for action. He established a literal red line in his speech at the United Nations, taking out a red marker and drawing a line on an image of a bomb. This represented Iran’s completion of the second step of nuclear enrichment, the point of no return. Clearly, for Netanyahu, a worse option than war with Iran is a nuclear Iran. Indeed, he warned that, “given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons.”
Despite the widespread view that Netanyahu and Lieberman are hawkish on Iran, their statements and actions imply a more measured approach. Netanyahu, nonetheless, would likely act more aggressively towards Iran in his second term because Iran is closer to nuclear capacity than ever before. Still, Netanyahu and Lieberman both recognize Israeli’s dependency on American support, which makes a unilateral strike unlikely. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, progress toward a two-state solution appears unlikely. For progress to be made, Lieberman must get over his distaste for Abbas, who is Israel’s best chance for a peace partner, and continue to craft unprecedented proposals. Ultimately, Prime Minister Netanyahu must show a willingness to negotiate on West Bank settlements if he desires a comprehensive peace.