Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, suffered a historic setback last week. Voters repudiated his Likud Party in favour of the novice centrist Yair Lapid and his party, Yesh Atid.
The blow to Netanyahu’s ego was enormous, the humiliation profound and the consequences obvious: Netanyahu will almost certainly be... Israel’s next prime minister.
In other words, don’t believe the hype. Yes, Netanyahu’s party lost ground, and yes, the silent middle of the Israeli electorate believes he should pay more attention to social and economic issues. But Netanyahu will remain Israel’s prime minister.
And this will undoubtedly have consequences for Israel’s moribund peace process with the Palestinians. Immediately after the election, speculation ran rampant that the supposed revolt of Israel’s centre meant that talks might be revived. This may be so, but there are also some pretty compelling reasons to believe the process will remain comatose for the foreseeable future.
Because I am a chronic optimist, let me first outline the reasons that there might now be a sliver of a chance to revive the peace process:
First, the inclusion of Lapid in Netanyahu’s next coalition government — which seems like a certainty — means the prime minister will have to accede to Lapid’s demand that he jump-start negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas.
Second, U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe — particularly Jordan’s King Abdullah II and British Prime Minister David Cameron — are desperate to see President Barack Obama retake the initiative and pressure Netanyahu and Abbas to begin talks in earnest, and they’re beginning to lobby Obama intensively.
Third, Sen. John Kerry, Obama’s nominee to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, is deeply invested in finding a way to restart negotiations. His power is not negligible, and perhaps he has fresher ideas than the previous generation of Middle East peace negotiators, typified by the longtime diplomat Dennis Ross.
Fourth, the Palestinian Authority still exists. This is something of a miracle. It hasn’t yet been replaced by Hamas, or by chaos.
Fifth, Sara Netanyahu, Benjamin’s wife, doesn’t seem to like Naftali Bennett, the head of the hard-right Jewish Home party, who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state on even a portion of the West Bank. Bennett is a former employee of the prime minister’s and has been publicly, if obliquely, critical of his wife. As a result, he might be excluded from the coalition. Yes, this sounds insane, but such is Sara Netanyahu’s power.
Sixth, Many Israelis worry about their country’s demographic future; they realize Israel can’t maintain permanent control over millions of Palestinians without threatening its democratic character or its status as a Jewish-majority homeland. These Israelis don’t constitute the so-called peace camp — the small minority who are eager to make concessions to the Palestinians — but they would accept a compromise deal, so long as they thought they weren’t being played for suckers.
And now, reasons to be negative:
First, Netanyahu is still Netanyahu. Under great pressure from the United States, Netanyahu did endorse, in principle, the idea of two states for two peoples in 2009. But he has done nothing since to advance that goal. He has frozen settlement growth temporarily — again under intense U.S. pressure — but he invariably unfreezes the settlements, and his government seems to be devising new ways to prevent the birth of a Palestinian state each day.
Second, Abbas is still Abbas. Netanyahu isn’t exactly rejecting the extended hand of a flawless peace partner. Abbas is weak and vacillating, and has proved himself adept at rejecting reasonable offers from Israeli interlocutors.
Third, the Palestinians are still engaged in a civil war. Lest we forget, Hamas, a group that seeks Israel’s destruction, is still in control of half of the would-be state of Palestine, and it hasn’t made up with the Palestinian Authority, which controls some of the West Bank. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Israel would make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that isn’t in a position to rule Palestine.
Fourth, Lapid isn’t a peacenik. He’s a centrist who doesn’t feel great affection for the Palestinians. He rose to prominence as an advocate for a set of domestic issues, not for his love of the two-state solution.
Fifth, Kerry and Cameron may want to orchestrate meaningful negotiations, but Obama apparently does not — he sees no reason for optimism, and doesn’t seem ready to expend political capital in pursuit of peace talks that might go nowhere.
Sixth, the timing is most unpropitious. The immediate concern of Israeli leaders is the security of the Syrian chemical-weapons stockpile. Israel may very well launch pre-emptive strikes on Syrian targets to prevent the transfer of those weapons to Hezbollah, the anti-Israel, Iranian-proxy terrorist group. Israelis are also preoccupied with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, the chaos in Egypt and, of course, Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In this combustible atmosphere, it is difficult to imagine Israel’s leaders agreeing to cede the high ground overlooking Tel Aviv to the Palestinians.
I do think there will be movement on the peace process — or the facsimile of movement — in the coming months. But there is no indication that either side is ready to address the two most toxic issues: the status of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jerusalem. So Obama isn’t wrong to have his doubts. He should remember, however, that this next four-year period might represent the last chance to bring about a two-state solution.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.