The Israel-Palestine conflict is perhaps the greatest secessionist movement of our generation. There are few people who would assert that no progress has been made since the creation of the state of Israel almost 60 years ago. From the days of civil war between Jew and Arab to the modern conflict of the West Bank, there have been significant developments in the peace process. However, the recent Israeli elections have left citizens and observers in a dangerous position of being unaware of the current status and future potential of a lasting peace.
For the uninitiated, the Israeli political system can be a complex and confusing process. An example of this complexity can be found in the party system - before the 2009 election, there were 43 parties registered for contention. Other institutes, including the US Council on Foreign Relations have produced comprehensive and uncomplicated summations of the Israeli political system, and as such, this will not be discussed here, beyond that which specifically relates to the 2009 Knesset.
The elections for the 18th Knesset, the legislative body of Israel, were held on February 18, 2009, following the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the Kadima party, and the failure of his successor, Tzipi Livni, to form a coalition government. The result, thus far, shows a tense standoff between the diametrically opposed Kadima and Likud parties, with the former only marginally ahead, and a number of smaller parties rounding out the major stakeholders. The Israeli political system is unique in that no political party has ever won a majority. As such, it falls to one of the parties, usually that which has won the most seats, to form a coalition of parties that make up the government.
Despite Kadima winning one more seat then Likud, Israeli President Shimon Peres asked Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition government. The decision to grant this responsibility to Likud as opposed to Kadima was a calculated risk, aimed at ensuring the willingness of smaller parties to participate in the coalition government. The doubt of the ability of Kadima is warranted - if Livni was unable to obtain the required numbers following Prime Minister Olmert’s retirement, there is nothing to suggest this would change a few months later.
Kadima and Likud are almost perfectly juxtaposed, albeit within a political system where most parties have a centric position. Kadima was formed in 2005 by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with the aim of maintaining a majority of Jews in Israel through calculated ceding of territory and support for the foundation of a disarmed Palestinian state.
On the other hand, Likud espouses the right of citizens to pursue the “Land of Israel” through West Bank and Gaza settlements, and there is a trend within the party to oppose Palestinian statehood and respond violently to acts of terrorism and threats to Israeli interests. As such, the result of this election and President Sheres’ decision to appoint Likud to form the coalition could have major repercussions for the Middle East peace process, both between Israel and Palestine, as well as Israel’s Arab neighbours.
Perhaps the most significant impact on the peace process as a direct result of the 2009 election is the choice of cabinet, and more specifically, the portfolios that will directly impact on Israel-Palestine relations.
Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, will fill the role of Prime Minister. A staunch right-wing representative, Netanyahu was formerly a fierce opponent to any territorial withdrawal, as well as the two-state solution. This stance has been somewhat lessened since taking power in February, and Netanyahu has vowed to push for continued peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. He has, however, been notably silent on the more specific matter of Palestinian statehood.
Second only to the Prime Minister in importance to Israel-Palestine relations is the Defence Minister, Ehud Barack. With a background as a military Chief of Staff and the current head of the Labor party, Barack returns to the ministry he held under the previous government, with a broad public support base for his role in the 2008 incursion in Gaza.
Leader of the Yisrael-Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, widely considered by many media sources to be inherently anti-Arab and a racist, will lead the Foreign Ministry. Leiberman based his electoral campaign on attacking Israel’s Arab population. While Leiberman has ventured support for the creation of a Palestinian state, it is commonly believed this support is based on the redrawing of Israel’s borders to force regions with high Arab citizenry out.
Finally, making up the last of the portfolios of importance in Israel-Arab relations, is Moshe Ya’alon, who takes up the positions of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister in charge of Strategic Affairs. Ya’alon, a member of the centre-right Likud party, served as a military Chief of Staff and head of military intelligence, during a long military career. He has been openly critical of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip and is considered a staunch conservative on issues of security.
In a complex political environment like Israel’s, wherein the government is comprised of a coalition of parties, it becomes difficult to identify a unifying national interest, and thereby develop sound and fitting policy. The result of the 2009 Israeli election has the capacity to directly impact the state’s relations with Palestine, and indeed, the greater Arab community.
Already cracks have begun to appear in the fragile coalition as Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman recently asserted that the new government would not be held by the commitments of its predecessors. However, it is still early in the incumbency of the new government, and only time will tell which path the Knesset will take.