If nothing is certain but death and taxes, all the rest is even less certain in Israeli coalition negotiations. Still, in prime minister-designate Bibi Netanyahu’s second attempt on Friday to woo Tzipi Livni — current foreign minister and head of the Kadima Party — into his coalition, he took a second strong rebuff.
Netanyahu’s center-right Likud Party won 27 Knesset mandates (out of 120) in the February 14 elections, one mandate less than center-left Kadima. But with the six center-right parties winning decisively as a bloc, it’s Netanyahu who’s been tasked with forming the next government.
And while he can probably form a center-right majority government of 65 Knesset members without courting Kadima and the other center-left party, Labor, he plainly regards such a coalition with trepidation. It would include parties and individuals perceived as extremist both by the Israeli center-left and abroad, and would, Netanyahu fears, give him a weak basis for pursuing critical national tasks like coping with Israel’s mounting economic crisis and possibly dealing militarily with the Iranian nuclear threat.
Yet in Friday’s meeting with Livni — in which he again made a generous offer of cabinet posts for Kadima — the sticking point was, again, Netanyahu’s refusal to commit himself to a full-fledged, sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu is reported to have said: “A final agreement will see the Palestinians having the full authority to run their lives. But do you want them to have control of the air space, their own army, the right … to make alliances with other states like Iran, or control over borders that would allow for weapons imports? … If they get full sovereignty it will pose a risk to [Israel’s] security.”
Critics of Livni — including some within Kadima who favor continuing the coalition talks with Likud — ask why at this stage, with the Palestinians split between Hamas-ruled Gaza and weak, corrupt Fatah rule in the West Bank, she’s giving the Palestinian-state issue such centrality even as Israel faces grave, immediate challenges like the economy, Iran, and ongoing rocket fire. Livni’s stance, on the other hand, has a powerful backer in U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said on Friday, regarding her upcoming visit to Israel this week, that “we will certainly convey our strong commitment to a two-state solution.”
For all that, Netanyahu’s view on Palestinian sovereignty is actually a traditional one that, till not long ago, was a consensus position between the two then-dominant Israeli parties, Likud and Labor. From Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war up to the early 1990s, a Palestinian state was seen as an unrealistic, unacceptably dangerous option favored only by the far left of the Israeli spectrum.
Given Israel’s extreme vulnerability to attack from these areas, it’s easy to see why. The Likud generally favored self-government short of statehood for the Palestinians — similar to Netanyahu’s position now; the dominant Labor position was long the Allon Plan, under which Israel would have annexed about one-third of the West Bank for security purposes while ceding the rest to Jordan.
As late as Israel’s 1992 national elections, the Labor Party ran on a platform that said no to a Palestinian state. And as late as October 1995, after the Oslo process with Yasser Arafat’s PLO had begun, then-Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke in his last address to the Knesset of “a Palestinian entity … which is less than a state” as the end-goal of the process.
Nothing has changed to make a Palestinian state any less dangerous for Israel; indeed, in an era where both Islamic fanaticism and WMD proliferation have grown, the danger would be greater than ever. The center-right bloc won so decisively in the February elections largely because the Israeli people have, since 1993, seen the results of partial or full withdrawals from land in the West Bank, Gaza, and southern Lebanon — results that have included suicide bombings, missile bombardments, and wars.
What has changed, though, are political attitudes both in Israel and the U.S. Center-left politicians in Israel — and some formerly on the right, of whom Livni herself is a prime example — have gradually adopted the politically-correct international take on the “two-state solution” instead of the traditional, pragmatic, security-based Israeli position. And in the U.S., the Bush administration adopted Palestinian statehood as a major objective and seems, for now, to have made it a bipartisan principle of U.S. foreign policy.
Netanyahu’s task, then, is difficult: he has to negotiate between potential right-wing coalition partners who expect him to stand firm against a Palestinian state, some of them out of religious-historical motivations; hoped-for center-left coalition partners, namely Kadima and Labor, who are supersensitive to international opinion to the point of slighting fundamental Israeli security interests; and a U.S. administration, and larger world, whose advocacy of a Palestinian state derives largely from Arab/Muslim economic and diplomatic power, and for which envisioned future Israeli security problems are not a prime concern.
At least when it comes to emphasizing the issues of “control of the air space, their own army, the right … to make alliances with other states like Iran, or control over borders that would allow for weapons imports,” Israel has (in its roundabout way) elected an effective leader in Netanyahu, since nobody can make those points much better.