Thursday, 24 January 2013

Israel's election – rise of moderate centre parties still leaves future negotiations with Palestinians uncertain

In Israel’s election on Tuesday Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu polled more than any other party albeit with a substantially reduced number of seats.  The biggest surprise is the strong showing of the newly formed centrist Yesh Atid party that has secured 19 Knesset seats.  Its leader and former TV broadcaster Yair Lapid stated before the election that he would only join a coalition that was seriously committed to negotiations with the Palestinians[1].

Israel’s system of proportional representation has ensured that no one party has ever been able to deliver an outright majority in Government.  But yesterday’s election results were particularly confusing, splitting the Knesset down the middle with 60 seats each for the right wing and Centrist/left blocks.   In order to form a government Binyamin Netanyahu is “reaching across the aisle” to potential centrist coalition partners such as Yesh Atid.

If, as is likely, Netanyahu succeeds in forming a coalition involving one or more of the centrist parties, it is doubtful that this would bring about any significant change of direction on policies towards a peace process.
Firstly we should not attempt to read into the results of the Tuesday’s election shifts in Israeli public opinion on dealings with the Palestinians or on policy towards Iran.  While these may be a consideration for voters, domestic issues are the main priority. 

Secondly most in the former right wing coalition had been looking forward to a clearer policy rejecting any further compromise with Palestinians and pursuing an assertive and unapologetic policy on illegal settlement expansion.  Netanyahu has a rather tepid commitment to negotiations with Palestinians but the majority of those on the Likud Beiteinu Party list do not support negotiations of any form.  One Likud Member of the Knesset asserted last week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2009 speech calling for a Palestinian State was no more than a tactical manoeuvre to placate the world and that the party remains opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian State.  Yair Lapid has been critical of Netanyahu’s lukewarm approach to negotiations and supports a near complete withdrawal from the West Bank.  But any influence arising from the presence of centrist parties joining a coalition will be constrained by a mood within Likud Beiteinu that wants to see the Government to deliver a strong and punitive response to the Palestinian’s claim for recognition at the UN. 

On the other hand, as settlement expansion continues and the prospects for a two-state solution appear to retreat further into the distance, a coalition involving Yesh Atid or others from the centre ground could provide a government that is more responsive to pressure brought to bear by the international community.  But in essence it would appear that a confused election result does not provide Netanyahu with a mandate either for conducting meaningful negotiations or for refusing to negotiate on the future of the Palestinian territories.  

[1]  Yair Lapid has also made clear that Israel’s commitment to “an undivided Jerusalem” is not up for negotiation.