So finally, after weeks of seamy backroom maneuvering, Benjamin Netanyahu has formed the new Israeli government, so bloated with ministries doled out as party favors that it was beginning to look as if Bibi would name a Minister of Public Toilets, or perhaps Deputy Premier for Parking Violations, just to placate dissatisfied rivals from his restless Likud stable.
Kadima leader Tzipi Livni made the mistake of assuming that Labor, in particular leader Ehud Barak, still retained some smidgen of principle and would thus stand by its avowal not to take part in a government liberally stocked with rejectionist bigots like Avigdor Lieberman. She should've known better. There may be a few decent souls left in the party, but common references to it, especially in the US media, as "center left" are laughable and have been for some time, as Daphna Baram pointed out recently in the Guardian.
Barak himself has always been a rejectionist warrior. As chief of staff of the army in the early 1990s, he opposed the Oslo Accords. As prime minister in 1999-2000, he approved a massive increase in settlement construction and then destroyed what remained of the Oslo process by making outrageous demands of the Palestinians at Camp David. Then, in response to overwhelmingly unarmed rioting after Ariel Sharon's provocative peacock-strut on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Barak ordered a murderous fusillade of live ammunition to suppress demonstrations all over the territories.
Not only has Barak consistently opposed serious negotiations with the Palestinians, he's not even a good military strategist, despite being Israel's most highly decorated soldier. As defense minister in Ehud Olmert's now deceased government, Barak just oversaw the disastrous Gaza massacre, now condemned round the world as involving multiple war crimes (see the devastating February 11 report, A/HRC/10/20, by Nation editorial board member and UN Special Rapporteur, Richard Falk). All that, and the campaign didn't even seriously damage Hamas's rocket capability.
So what kind of government is Bibi leading? Observers should keep an unpleasant fact in mind as they wade through the media verbiage: Netanyahu and his partners have no intention of engaging in serious negotiations--and there should be no illusions that Barak or the other Labor cabinet members will put a serious brake on this. The new government will do everything it can to kill any chances of a two-state solution, including acceleration of settlement construction. See Helena Cobban's posting on our site about the latest spate of house demolitions in East Jerusalem. And Israeli Army Radio has reported a secret agreement between Netanyahu and Lieberman to build 3,000 units of housing in the crucial E1 area, between East Jerusalem and the giant Ma'ale Adumim settlement. The colonization of E1 would cement the bantustanization of the West Bank, not only severing the Palestinian northern West Bank from the southern but choking off Palestinian access to Jerusalem, the necessary capital of any future state.
Barak was recruited to the cabinet to serve as a fig leaf for Western governments and leading media, which desperately crave the appearance of a peace process, since even they would not be able to continue the now-years-long pretense in the face of a government composed solely of Bibi and thugs to his right like Lieberman. There's collusion on almost all sides, actually: Israel needs the fig leaf both to satisfy Western diplomats and to help ease upgraded status with its largest trading partner, the EU. The Obama administration needs the fig leaf to avoid incurring the draining confrontation with the AIPAC and Christian Zionist crowd (and their cutthroat brethren in the blogosphere) that might arise as a result of tensions between the administration and an openly recalcitrant Israel. And, perhaps most pathetic of all, Mahmous Abbas and his cohort in the Palestinian Authority leadership desperately need to keep alive the possibility of negotiations, because without that, their last shred of credibility--their very raison d'etre--would disappear.
It looks pretty bleak, but one recent diplomatic demarche would at least provide bipartisan cover for Obama to press for serious talks, in contrast to the 2007 Annapolis charade: under the auspices of Henry Siegman's U.S./Middle East Project, a heavyweight crew of former diplomats and think tankers, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Paul Volcker, James Wolfensohn and Chuck Hagel, has submitted to President Obama "A Last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement."
The document calls for putting serious pressure on all parties to begin accelerated negotiations toward a solution roughly along the lines of most recent two-state proposals: Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with only minor and reciprocal adjustments allowed; division of Jerusalem, with Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty, and unimpeded access from both sides to their respective holy sites in the Old City; a resolution of the refugee problem "consistent with the two-state solution," i.e., that would not allow general return to Israel but would acknowledge the injustice of the expulsion and provide generous compensation for resettlement in the new state of Palestine or elsewhere. There's plenty to argue about in these elements, as in other details of the plan, but there's little denying that something along these lines is the only chance for survival of the two-state solution.
The question is, Does Obama have the guts to adopt and forcefully push it--and threaten serious repercussions if he encounters obstruction? The recent Chas Freeman episode isn't exactly encouraging, but we're still testing the mettle of this president. He may yet surprise us.