Tel Aviv turns right
While the United States ushers in a new era from the belligerency of Bush, Israel is heading further into extremism, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem
With Benyamin Netanyahu widely expected to become Israel's next prime minister, concern is growing in Palestinian circles as to the fate of the "peace process", or remains of it, under an extremist Israeli government. A host of decidedly right-wing fanatics have already joined or re-joined the Likud Party, further enforcing widespread impressions that the next Israeli government will either shun the peace process altogether or render it futile through political intransigence and strident settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Recent opinion polls gave Likud a comfortable lead over its main rival, the Kadima Party, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The same polls predicted that the Labour Party, led by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, would suffer a "historical decline" by winning no more than seven Knesset seats. In short, the next Israeli Knesset is expected to have a decisive rightist majority.
While Netanyahu is riding high in opinion polls, he and his party are facing an image problem among some mainstream Israelis who think rather correctly that the party has drifted far from the centre-right and effectively become a far-right party. This impression stems from the fact that the bulk of party members are opposed to the peace process as well as the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Some actually support ethnic cleansing of non-Jews from Palestine-Israel.
In this context there are fears that Netanyahu will be more influenced by the party than the party is by him. According to some Israeli analysts, Netanyahu might resort to forming a coalition government with the Kadima, and possibly with a dwarfed Labour Party, in order to overcome the image problem his government is expected to have, especially abroad. According to Israeli analysts, Netanyahu's main challenge will be how to "work it out" with the new Obama administration in Washington.
Obama is widely believed to favour the Arab Peace Initiative that calls for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 and a mutually accepted-compromise over the right of return for Palestinian refugees in return for peace and normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world. Netanyahu vehemently rejects in principle the concept of withdrawing to the boundaries of 4 June 1967, which he referred to on many occasions as "the Auschwitz borders".
However, it is unlikely that the expected next prime minister of Israel will collide head-on with the Obama administration, in light of the strategic and existential nature of US-Israeli relations with the US as Israel's guardian and ultimate ally. According to Shmuel Rosner, a columnist who frequently writes on Israeli- American affairs, it is reasonable to expect that relations between the Obama administration and a Netanyahu government will be strained but not break.
Obama, during the US presidential election campaign, reportedly remarked that, "one doesn't need a pro-Likud approach in order to be pro-Israel." Unlike the Kadima government, which has been engaging in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu has been trying to promote "economic peace" that doesn't involve "territorial concessions". According to his logic, creating better economic conditions for Palestinians would make them less inclined to engage in "violence and terror" against Israel and more willing to compromise on such cardinal issues as the fate of Jerusalem and the plight of Palestinian refugees.
However, the idea of "economic peace" has been met with disdain from Palestinians and Arabs in general and suspicion by the rest of the world, including Europe and the upcoming US administration. In recent weeks, Netanyahu has been telling foreign dignitaries visiting Israel that "economic peace" didn't necessarily mean that Israel under his leadership would completely disengage from peace talks. For example, Netanyahu told visiting Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg that diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority "would take place alongside efforts to achieve economic peace".
According to Zalman Shoval, head of the Likud Foreign Relations Department who attended the Schwarzenberg meeting, Netanyahu stressed that his idea of economic peace was not a replacement for political talks, but rather meant to create a foundation and positive atmosphere that would augment those talks. "This could be a conduit for a political settlement," he said.
Few observers and analysts in Palestine give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt. "This is hogwash. He is a big liar. He lies as often as he speaks," said professor Abdul-Sattar Qassem of An-Najah University's Political Science Department. "I think this man represents real Zionism that believes in ethnic cleansing of non-Jews in this country. He does speak smoothly to a Western audience, but in terms of his real thinking, he doesn't differ much from Meir Kahana."
Meir Kahana was an extremist Jewish rabbi and former Knesset member who advocated total expulsion of non-Jews from Palestine-Israel and the creation of a Jewish theocracy ruled by Talmudic Laws.
Qassem says Netanyahu as prime minister may try to look less extreme, especially to the Europeans and Americans. However, in real terms, he would even be worse than former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu opposed the Israeli redeployment from Gaza in 2005 by resigning from the government.
Meanwhile, there are those within the Likud who think that the enduring Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is irrelevant to the success of a Likud or Likud-led government. This is the view of Beny Begin, son of the Likud's historical leader Menachem Begin, who has rejoined the party.
When asked what he thought about the two-state solution, Begin evaded the question, but made some interesting remarks. "We are not there yet. I have my ideas; others have theirs. But this subject is irrelevant to the current situation. There is a very wide consensus in the country regarding the utmost necessity of having the IDF forces and general security personnel in Judea and Samaria."