Peace Not Likely a Priority for Israel’s new Coalition

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with President Peres to announce that he has put together a government

As Netanyahu presented his coalition for the 33rd government to President Shimon Peres on March 16th, he also included the customary declaration hoping for an improvement in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship:

“The coalition’s basic guidelines state that “Israel will pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians with the goal of reaching a diplomatic accord that would end the conflict; if such a resolution is reached, the government would be asked to approve it and should the need arise, it would be subject to a referendum.”

For those of us who are hoping for the resumption of peace talks if for no other reason than for the fact that talking is better than not talking, this seems like good news. However, it only takes a quick glance at the outlines of the new government coalition to see that any advancement in the dialogue with the Palestinians is guaranteed to come with a spill-proof “no territorial concessions” guard.

That guarantee comes from the handing of major government ministries with influence over key government decisions regarding settlements directly into the hands of Naftali Bennet’s HaBayit HaYehudi, a party that is directly apposed to the peace process and supports the expansion of settlements. While it may seem expected that the prime minister himself would set policy towards the West Bank, most important routine decisions regarding construction of housing and infrastructure is under the control of the Ministry of Housing, a ministerial position that has been filled with HaBayit HaYehudi’s number two, Uri Ariel.

Haaretz: Israel's new ministers
Haaretz: Israel’s new ministers

Ariel, a former secretary general of both the settler organization Amana and the Yesha Council, was ranked as the most effective right-wing member of the Knesset in 2011. The ranking was based on a number of nationalist achievements in the areas of “nationalist achievements” and “sovereignty and construction.” Ariel’s achievements listed in the study were laws passed on settlement building, making Jerusalem a “national priority zone” and legislation towards improving cell phone service in the West Bank.

Naftali Bennet himself will be in charge of the Economy and Trade Ministry, (formerly the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor), a cabinet position that will most likely give him substantial control over the promotion of economic growth and regional economic development in Israel.  According to its website, the ministry is “engaged in the encouragement and support of export and international commerce, in order to assist Israeli businesses in enhancing their exports and entering new markets abroad.” While this may not seem like an important post for someone whose primary concern is the promotion and expansion of settlements, it is in fact one of the major quiet battlegrounds where the ideological struggle over resource allocation to settlements is played out. This ministry determines whether how economic and industrial support is allocated, including whether or not economic growth is allowed and encouraged in the West Bank. Being in charge of the export market also gives him certain powers over how West Bank products are marketed and sold in the rest of the world, something that is becoming increasingly important as the international divestment campaign against settlement products is gaining ground.

As defense minister, Netanyahu picked former General and deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya’alon, explaining that at this decisive time when “region all around us is stormy” Israel needs an experienced man on this post. Ya’alon, who came in fifth place in the 2011 ranking of the most right-wing MKs, is well know for his hard-line views towards the Palestinians and his hawkish views towards Iran. However, Ya’alon should not be dismissed as a one-dimensional character. His roots are in Labor Zionism, and he originally supported negotiating with the Palestinians and the signing of the Oslo accords, but like many Israelis, became disenchanted when the results were unsuccessful. Instead, Ya’alon argues for a “bottom up” rather than top-down approach to peace, where Palestinians first must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, then prove themselves economically and politically, before gaining the right to statehood.

Finally, and if he is exonerated from the corruption charges against him, the foreign ministry will remain in the hands of Yisrael Beiytenu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who does not miss an opportunity to point out that he is adamantly opposed to any freeze in settlement construction anywhere at all for the purpose of restarting the peace effort.

Tzipi Livni, Leader of Kadima Party -Israel. צ...

Thus, whether Tzipi Livni, charged with the Ministry of Justice and Israeli-Palestinian affairs, will have any chance to make concessions that can be acceptable to the minimum Palestinian demands, seems highly unlikely. As “chief negotiator” Netanyahu has promised not to side-step her, but any concession that she makes would be subject to a vote both in the coalition and in the full Knesset, and possibly also to a referendum. Palestinians, it was reported, are underwhelmed by her appointment.

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