Analysis |

Try as It May, Israel's New Government Won't Be Able to Skirt the Palestinian Issue

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Palestinians protest Israel's planned evictions of Palestinian families from homes in Silwan, outside an Israeli court in East Jerusalem, on Thursday.
Palestinians protest Israel's planned evictions of Palestinian families from homes in Silwan, outside an Israeli court in East Jerusalem, on Thursday.Credit: Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

There is a consensus in Israel that the new government, expected and scheduled to be sworn in on Sunday, is replete with structural contradictions.

The conventional wisdom prevalent in the punditocracy is that this is an unnatural, motley amalgam of right-wing, centrist, left-wing, conservative and liberal parties, with the addition of a party, the United Arab List, that represents the southern branch of the Islamic Movement.

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The only common denominator they share, according to the conventional wisdom, is a deep disdain toward, and heavy fatigue with, Benjamin Netanyahu, the toxic political culture he has installed over 12 years in power, and the clear and imminent threat to democracy and the rule of law that he posed. That, so the argument goes, is not enough to sustain a narrow governing coalition that will eventually start pulling in different directions.

Looking at the composition of the coalition at face value, this may be true. On the flip side, that very same common denominator may prove to be the government’s strength and assure its political longevity, as long as it adheres to common and agreed-upon goals and policy objectives.

The inherent contradictions, intrinsic points of friction and ideological gaps between the component parts were not alien to Yair Lapid, who skillfully orchestrated the coalition-building process, to the presumptive prime minister, Naftali Bennett, or to the other coalition partners who, in hindsight, presented only minor challenges.

They all coalesced around one priority – changing the government – and accordingly devised a defining mechanism and modus operandi: Avoid any issue that would by definition cause major strife and disagreement.

The government will simply refrain from dealing with contentious issues and make no major decisions.

The underlying logic is compelling: Reversing Netanyahu’s assault on the judiciary, checks and balances and public service, the need to focus on the adverse economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, the urgent need to rehabilitate the health system, and try to restore the public’s trust in the government’s ability to govern and manage a diverse and complex country, is an agenda ambitious and broad enough to accommodate three medium-sized countries. There is no need to self-destruct by tackling inevitably controversial issues.

This logic would be viable, durable and effective except for one minor detail. This is Israel.

Assuming that a workable consensus can be forged on major foreign policy and security issues like relations with the United States, relations with China or the Iran nuclear deal, there remains the most contentious, controversial, divisive and potentially explosive matter of them all: the Palestinian issue. This conflict and its many expressions is not bound by coalition agreements, nor is it amenable to being put on hold on the grounds that it disrupts the government’s harmony and imperils its very existence.

A Palestinian preparing corn yesterday near the rubble of houses that were destroyed in Israeli airstrikes during Israeli-Palestinian fighting last month.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

Without relitigating the pros and cons and feasibility of various approaches to the conflict, the theory of “Let’s avoid controversial issues” has one major adversary – reality.

This reality has two aspects: existing trends; and unforeseen developments. The known and existing trends are clear.

The “two-states” model may very well be a nonstarter at this point, but the new government will have to come up with some intermediate-range coherent alternative. Substituting “conflict resolution” with “conflict management” is a great think-tank parable, but hardly constitutes a sustainable policy.

The disconnect between Gaza and the West Bank widens. Hamas’ control of Gaza, however objectionable, is deep and strong, and it is also making strides in the West Bank. Gaza is also facing an ongoing humanitarian crisis that Israel cannot ignore – neither morally nor politically.

Netanyahu deliberately weakened the Palestinian Authority and is leaving behind scorched earth in terms of mutual trust. Settlement activity in the West Bank may not be augmented, but it will certainly not be scaled down. If the new government persists in not engaging in a diplomatic process because it is a “controversial issue,” that trust will not be restored.

The political situation in the PA is delicate. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not getting any younger or healthier, and his would-be successors may not be acceptable as interlocutors to all parts of the new government.

Then there’s East Jerusalem. A focal point of friction and violence in the last few weeks, this has all the makings of an ongoing crisis that will demand the new government’s attention.

Unforeseen developments pose an equally challenging problem. The new government may be confident and reassured that the Palestinian issue is not a priority for the Biden administration, but that doesn’t mean the world is oblivious.

The public attention and political sympathy the Palestinians garnered in the last round of violence will be used by them to test the new government.

Demands for a political process – once fondly named the “peace process” – will grow, as will pressure to alleviate the Gaza crisis. The Palestinians obviously do not share the new government’s bumper sticker slogan of “Hey, give us credit, we got rid of Netanyahu.”

Any thoughts the government may have of developing a regional framework, on the basis of last year’s normalization agreements with four Arab countries, are welcome. But surely they know that there is a substantial Palestinian component to it as well.

In the absence of a process with a tangible silver lining, nothing will prevent the Palestinians from “internationalizing” the conflict, i.e., going back to the United Nations and demanding recognition. This will test not only the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but the coalition’s robustness.

The masterminds of this coalition deserve much credit for an impressive political achievement. But the principle of sidestepping the Palestinian issue may be an obstacle too big to overcome.

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