Mar 13th 2009

The Collapse of the Coalition Negotiations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

"The Obama administration must remain unequivocal in its pursuit of the two-state solution" 

and

"to make it abundantly clear to Israel that settlement expansion runs contradictory to peace"                                                                                       The collapse of the coalition negotiations between Likud Leader Benjamin
Netanyahu and Kadima's Tzipi Livni over Netanyahu's refusal to commit to the
two-state solution may force him to form a narrow-based right-of-centre
government. Such a government is likely to impede any progress or end up
disintegrating under domestic and American pressure to make important
concessions for the peace process. The Obama administration must remain
unequivocal in its pursuit of the two-state solution to prevent a further
escalation of the conflict with unpredictable regional implications.

Ms. Livni was absolutely correct in turning down Netanyahu's "generous" offer to
join his government, where her party would be granted important portfolios in
the coalition but denied any sound assurance that the peace negotiations would
continue. Indeed, an Israeli government which is not committed to the two-state
solution is sewing the seeds for incessant terror and violence that will do
nothing but set the Israelis and Palestinians further apart. A narrow
centre-right government is a recipe for paralysis as most of Netanyahu's
coalition partners condition their joining the government on continuing the
expansion of settlements. Netanyahu's slogan that Israel must first obtain
security before peace is simply unrealistic, as only peace will in turn provide
Israel with the ultimate security. By pursuing this policy, Israel is
de-legitimizing its right of self-defense with its continued settlement
expansion, while Hamas is strengthening its political position as the true
defender of Palestinian rights. As a result, Israel is dangerously eroding its
moral standing and losing international sympathy as it is the Palestinians and
not the Israelis who are seen as the beleaguered people.

After Operation Cast Lead, the international community responded by sending
throngs of official delegations and visitors to Gaza. The foreign ministers of
France, Canada, Turkey, Sweden and Norway all made visits to the war torn strip,
as well as Britain's Tony Blair, Javier Solana on behalf of the EU, and John
Kerry representing the U.S. Senate. Even more telling is the 75 countries and
organizations who participated in the February donor's conference in Sharm
el-Sheikh, pledging over 5 billion in aid to rebuild Gaza. Between the state
visits, donor commitments, and media reaction after the Gaza war, the general
sympathy for the Palestinian citizens has been overwhelming, and far outnumbers
any sentiment toward the Israeli side. Hamas, while damaged, has come out of
this war claiming victory by virtue of merely surviving the Israeli onslaught
and becoming somewhat recognized as a force that must be reckoned with, either
directly or indirectly in peace negotiations.

The Obama administration ought to make it abundantly clear to Israel that
settlement expansion runs contradictory to peace, and linking the settlements to
national security is nothing but a smokescreen. Taking into full consideration
Israel's legitimate national security concerns, the Obama administration must
state firmly that America's strategic interest in the Middle East is directly
linked to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Delaying the peace
negotiations that could lead to a two-state solution is not acceptable.
Moreover, it would be impossible to effectively address Iran's nuclear program
in isolation. Only by preventing Iran from exploiting the Arab-Israeli conflict
and isolating Hamas and Hezbollah from Tehran, will progress be made on the
Israeli-Palestinian front. The recent overture to Syria by the Obama
administration is a prudent move and it must be seen as a part and parcel of the
new American strategy to deal not just with the Arab-Israeli conflict but to
contain Iran's regional maneuverability.

Concerned Israelis must ask themselves the question as to what will happen in 10
to 15 years from now if there is no solution to the conflict with the
Palestinians. The status quo is pushing both Israelis Palestinians further into
extremism and creating conditions in both camps that raise an ominous prospect
for the future. The Palestinians are growing increasingly more hopeless and as
many are left with no choice but to resort to violent resistance. More than
seven out of every 10 Palestinians has been born under occupation. They do not
dwell on who is right and who is wrong, they know only one thing: occupation in
any form is intolerable and they are bent on ending it. They watch the
usurpation of their land day in and day out while laboring under the humiliation
of occupation in every turn they make. For Israel to use Hamas and violence as
an excuse without trying to deal with the root cause will no longer resonate, as
the reaction of the international community to the Israeli onslaught in Gaza has
demonstrated. The only way the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia can put
real pressure on Hamas and other extremist groups is if the Israeli government
suspends the expansion of settlements, dismantles all illegal outposts and
enters in earnest the peace negotiations with the objective of reaching a two
state solution.

One would hope that Mr. Netanyahu would moderate his views once he assumes the
responsibility of prime minister. Should he however form a right-of-centre
government, he may not be able to modify his position without risking its
collapse. It was during his last tenure as Prime Minister in the late nineties
that Netanyahu emphasized the three no's: no withdrawal from the Golan Heights,
no discussion of the Palestinian's claim to Jerusalem, and no negotiations while
under preconditions. The Obama administration must not let this ideology take
hold yet again, and he must have clear vision and a realistic strategy about the
peace process to push it through. This will not only bring an end to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but safeguard Israel's ultimate national security.

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