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Friday, April 3, 2009

Netanyahu's fig leaf buffer


LONDON — "I am not afraid of Bibi (Netanyahu). I will not be anybody's fig leaf," said Ehud Barak, leader of Israel's Labor Party, defending his decision to join the hard-right coalition government formed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. But off in the distance there was a curious whirring noise.

The sound was identified by Ophir Pines-Paz, a prominent Knesset member who is on the left of the Labor Party: "Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett (all former Labor prime ministers) are turning over in their graves." In fact, they are spinning at high speed, for Barak has abandoned Labor's traditional values to save its electoral prospects.

The coalition he has joined committed to expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and is led by a man who rejects the very idea of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu spent his entire first term as prime minister (1996-99) sabotaging the Oslo accords of 1993, which envisaged Palestinian statehood. As a result, the "peace process" had mostly run out of steam by the time he left office.

Barak got Netanyahu to say that he recognized Israel's "diplomatic and international" obligations (which include the Oslo accords). But how likely is it that a man who cannot even bring himself to utter the phrase "Palestinian state" will negotiate a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians?

Barak's other partners in the coalition includes the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, a Romanian immigrant (and now the new foreign minister) who wants to demand oaths of loyalty to the "Jewish state" from Israeli Arabs, and strip those who refuse of their Israeli citizenship.

So why did Barak do it? Simply: power. Not just personal power, although he got the Defense Ministry himself and four other Cabinet seats for Labor — not a bad result when Labor holds only 13 seats in the Knesset. His main goal is to keep Labor in the domestic political game, because it is at risk of losing out permanently.

Labor dominated Israeli politics for three decades after independence, and continued to be one of the two big parties for another 21 years after that. But in the last election it dropped to fourth place, and if it had refused to join the government, it wouldn't have been the official opposition party. Kadima, a centrist party, would fill that role, leaving Labor lost in the political undergrowth.

Barak was seeking some way to avoid that fate, and his opportunity arose because Netanyahu was looking for a fig leaf. While the core of the coalition that Netanyahu has built consists of "national" (rightwing) parties that support the settlements and reject a Palestinian state, some seemingly more reasonable coalition member would soften his government's image in the United States. It's all about the optics of dealing with President Barack Obama.

Netanyahu spent several weeks trying to persuade Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party to fill that role, but when she refused him, he turned to Barak — who leaped at the chance. It makes good tactical sense, even if it is a betrayal of Labor's and Barak's own past.

From an international perspective, it hardly matters whether Barak sells out or not, because the "peace process" is long dead. The fiction that it is still alive is occasionally useful to Western and/or Arab governments, and the international media are as gullible as ever. But no serious person in Israel or among the Palestinians believes that this generation will see a "two-state solution," with Israeli and Palestinian states dividing the land between the Jordan River and the sea along the pre-1967 frontiers of Israel.

Such an outcome was perfectly possible until Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a rightwing Israeli fanatic in 1995. Netanyahu had to work hard to sabotage the prospect of a land-for-peace deal when he was prime minister in 1996-99, and there was one last-chance attempt to revive it during Barak's brief premiership in 1999-2000. But it has now been dead for almost a decade.

Netanyahu really doesn't need Barak as a fig leaf, because he doesn't have to lift a finger to prevent the two-state solution. He can just point out that there is no united Palestinian authority to negotiate with. Nobody will bring up the fact that Israel worked very hard to create the current split among the Palestinians by fostering the growth of Hamas.

The Obama administration is unlikely to put serious pressure on Netanyahu, because it, too, must surely know that the "peace process" is dead. It is politically impossible for Obama to admit publicly that the whole thing is pointless and just walk away from the problem; he has to pretend to be engaged. But is he going to waste a lot of valuable political capital on it? One hopes not.

If you assume — Barak almost certainly does — that all the above is true, then his decision to enter Netanyahu's coalition is perfectly rational. None of the principles he is sacrificing stood the slightest chance of being turned into policy anyway, so why not do what needs to be done to save the Labor Party?

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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