For Peace, Don't Push Netanyahu Into a Fig-leaf Unity Government

International pressure is inadvertently pushing Netanyahu toward a center-left coalition partners – which would undermine the chance of peace in Israel and Palestine.

Anat Ben Nun
Anat Ben Nun
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Netanyahu during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset. March 31, 2015.
Netanyahu during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset. March 31, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Anat Ben Nun
Anat Ben Nun

Despite what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to portray, no foreign government intervened in Israel’s most recent election. Yet post-elections statements by the international community, and by the United States in particular, can be viewed as meddling with Israel’s internal affairs as they are pushing Netanyahu toward a unity government with the Zionist Camp. If the international community does not want to see more of the same in Israel and Palestine, it should consider curbing its criticism until a new Israeli government is formed.

While foreign governments avoided intervening in the election, Netanyahu used allegations to the contrary to gain political capital during his campaign. First, he did so through his speech to the U.S. Congress. His impeccable English and the 23 standing ovations surely played in his favor among his audience back home. Afterward the prime minister falsely accused foreign governments of funding efforts to “topple” him and the Likud party. This tactic culminated on the morning of election day, when, in an attempt to mobilize right-wing voters, Netanyahu posted to Facebook a video of himself saying foreign governments and left-wing NGOs are bussing Arabs to vote. And the rest is history - the Likud party won by a landslide and Netanyahu is currently working on building his coalition.

After the election was over, the international community broke its silence. From the moment the results were declared, we have witnessed a wave of criticism and condemnation of Netanyahu’s statements. European leaders slammed, as expected, Netanyahu's incitement against Israel’s Arab population and the assertion that no Palestinian state would be formed, but this time the Americans did not stay behind. As U.S.-Israel relations reach an all-time low, U.S. President Barack Obama has much leverage on Israel at his disposal. And as France begins another push for a United Nations Security Council Resolution on the parameters of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the United States might not veto this time, Netanyahu is beginning to feel the pressure.

When Netanyahu called for new elections back in December 2014, his reasoning was the need for a homogeneous government. He had told the public over and over that only a strong Likud within a large right-wing camp could ensure stability and be able to deliver results. Now, as coalition negotiations are taking place, Netanyahu’s clear preference is to form a right-wing coalition with 67 of the Knesset 120's members. But given the simmering international pressure, Netanyahu might already be acknowledging the importance of obtaining yet another fig leaf, like center-left leaders Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid in the previous government, or Ehud Barak in the government before them. Without such a partner, he knows he will have plenty of challenges; only last week Netanyahu transferred withheld Palestinian tax money to the PA, knowing it would be difficult to make such a move if a right-wing government is formed. In the meantime, Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog has not been adamant against joining Netanyahu’s government. An increase in international pressure at this point in time might push Herzog and Netanyahu closer toward each other.

But would the international community continue its pressure to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel if a unity government is in place? Could the United States choose not to use its veto power in the United Nations under such a scenario? A unity government will only lead to more of the same – more settlement building and perhaps another military operation. In the nine months of negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-2014, the Israeli government promoted tenders and plans for 13,851 housing units in the settlements, as Peace Now stated in a report. This happened as criticizing Israel’s settlement policy became more difficult under the circumstances at home and abroad. Since 2011, under the protection of center-left coalition partners, Netanyahu’s policy of retroactively legalizing illegal outposts essentially led to the establishment of 20 new settlements in the West Bank. As time goes by, the price of this alleged status quo becomes higher, and facts being created on the ground are making the implementation of a two-state solution more difficult.

A right-wing government jeopardizes quite a bit for Israel's progressive camp. Anti-democratic bills and the weakening of the judicial branch are only two of the alarming campaigns planned by some of Netanyahu’s potential right-wing coalition partners. Another is the call for the annexation of Area C, the 60% of the West Bank that is currently under Israeli civil and security control. However, a right-wing government would have a difficult time taking controversial steps such as the ones mentioned above, both internally and vis-a-vis the international community. Betting on a right wing government in the current situation is definitely not risk-free, but we already know where the other option would lead us.

A right-wing government, coupled with momentous international pressure, could actually provide Israel and Palestine with an opportunity. Yet in order for this to happen, the international community must remain patient just a little while longer.

Anat Ben Nun is the Director of Development and External Relations at Peace Now.

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