Friday, February 20, 2009

Right unites to put Netanyahu on course to become Israeli PM.

For people like myself, who had hoped that the election of Barack Obama would finally see a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, this is the worst possible result. Netanyahu may have lost the election, but he has won the battle to form the next Israeli government.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose party ­Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) came third in last week's general elections, told Israel's president, Shimon Peres, that he would support Netanyahu to lead a new coalition. He said he preferred to see Netanyahu lead a broad, national unity government but would join even a narrow, rightwing cabinet.

Within hours, Netanyahu's rival for the leadership, Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister, said her Kadima party would go into opposition, even though it won the most seats in the election. It leaves an unprecedented situation: in effect she won the election but lost the government.

In a text message to 80,000 Kadima party activists, Livni said: "Today the foundations have been laid for an extreme rightist government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. This is not our path, and there is nothing for us in such a government … We were not elected to legitimise an extreme right government and we must be an alternative of hope and go to opposition."

It really is enough to make one despair. The Americans finally elect a leader who we all hoped was sensible enough to genuinely play the role of honest broker and the Israeli public elect a man with no interest in peace at all.

Netanyahu opposes a return to peace talks with the Palestinians, offering instead investment projects in the occupied territories. He has pledged to continue settlement expansion, opposes giving up the Golan Heights to Syria, and argues for the toppling of Hamas in Gaza.

His allies have even more hardline policies. Lieberman, who lives on a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, proposes transferring some Arab Israeli villages into Palestinian control, wants all Arab Israelis to swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state or lose their citizenship, and dismisses calls for an independent Palestinian state as "a cover for radical Islam's attempt to destroy the state of Israel".

Where does one begin to look for peace when dealing with Netanyahu and Lieberman? Indeed, the entire government would collapse rather than engage in peace talks.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. The Israeli and American governments have traditionally been almost impossible to separate on Middle East policy, with Israel often being the junior partner who is actually calling the shots. But it's difficult to imagine the Obama administration living easily with the Netanyahu government as his aspirations for the region and Netahyahu's are almost polar opposites.

Indeed, given the election of Obama in the US and the fact that Netanyahu's government is so right wing it's very hard to imagine this Israeli government even seeing out a full term in office. This will be, as even Lieberman predicts, "a government of paralysis."

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