A Settlement Freeze Extension?

Would the collapse of Netanyahu and Lieberman hurt the possibility of peace?

Yesterday I mentioned the anger of settlers at the possibility of an extension of the (ineffective) settlement freeze after it expires at the end of September (“As we near the end of the building freeze, the public feels that it is necessary to stick to our guns and make it clear that if the freeze is extended, there will be no peace in Judea and Samaria”).  The Obama Administration, the EU and – of course – the West Bank government supports its extension.  Israeli PM Netanyahu thus faces an unenviable choice: refuse to extend the freeze and paint Israel as obstructionists or extend the freeze, confront the powerful settler community and, apparently, bring down the Israeli government.

Haaretz is reporting the Netanyahu told Spanish FM Miguel Moratinos that an extension of the settlement freeze would split the conservative governing coalition that is currently ruling Israel.  That an extension would pull apart the Israeli government is hardly surprising considering that Avigdor Lieberman – the leader of the extreme-right Yisraeli Beiteinu party who also lives in a settlement that recently banned any and all gentiles from entering – is the powerful FM of Israel.  Not only did Lieberman recently visit illegal and unauthorized Israeli settlements and outposts, but he also came out strongly against any move to slow or halt the illegal construction, saying that he would oppose any extension “with all [his] might.”

Predictably, an extension of the settlement construction freeze would drive a wedge further between Netanyahu and Lieberman – whose party is the second largest in the governing coalition.  Were the two to politically divorce, a new coalition would undoubtedly need to be established.  Netanyahu mused about this point when he lamented to the Spanish FM that such a breakdown of the Israeli coalition would damage the peace process.

My initial question was how it could possibly damage the peace process any further?  Throughout the last two months, the Palestinians and Israelis have been waltzing with ghost partners through a strikingly hollow US-moderated negotiation dance.  Although there have been rumors that Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is leaning towards moving to direct talks, no progress has actually been made on any of the issues.  Indeed, the evolution from proximity to direct talks could do more damage to the possibility for peace.  Is it possible to break what is already broken?

[tweetmeme] Furthermore, if Netanyahu’s coalition were to split, the new leadership would almost by default be more open to true gestures for peace than the current administration.  Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is as far to the right as is politically possible; a new coalition would certainly include some parties that are more inclined to make peace (Kadima?) while dropping some of the other extremist parties that are currently causing headaches (Yisrael Beiteinu and and the fundamentalist Shas party?).

Replacing an overly aggressive Lieberman, a foolish Danny Ayalon (the Deputy PM of Lieberman’s party) and a racist Eli Yishai (the leader of the Shas party) with Tzipi Livni of Kadima would hurt the chance of peace?

(Is there any other place where forming a coalition with a woman who was forced to cancel a trip to Britain to avoid being arrested for war crimes would be considered a move to the center and a move towards peace?)

Of course, the breakup of the Israeli government would leave the Palestinians with no one not to talk to while the new government is being formed.  Considering the wide gulf between the Palestinian and Israeli views, would such a delay actually cause any damage?  If Palestinians and Israelis come together for direct talks simply to have direct talks, it is likely that no progress would be made anyway; the fall of Netanyahu’s coalition would only be to delay failure.

A few months ago, when the Israeli government was consistently blundering and relations between the US and Israel were at an historic low (to paraphrase Michael Oren – the Israeli ambassador to the US) there was much speculation that Obama would have preferred to bring down Israel’s ruling coalition in hopes of a more accommodating one.

While such talk reeks of regime change (only a good idea if it is Iraq, Syria or Iran says Ayalon), I am hesitant to believe that a more centrist Israeli government wouldn’t be a better partner for peace that the extreme right that is currently bluffing its way around peace talks.

Photo from One Democratic State

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