Barack Obama’s new Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, arrives in Israel today charged with working towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But the expected victory of the right in the Israeli election on February 10 may doom his efforts from the outset.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who did much to bury the Oslo peace accords when he was last prime minister in 1996-99, will almost inevitably be the next prime minister, according to the latest opinion polls. His right-wing Likud party is likely to be the largest party, and the right-wing bloc of extreme religious and nationalist parties is likely to have a majority in the Israeli parliament. Mr Netanyahu would probably have won without the war in Gaza, but the conflict has shifted Israelis significantly to the right. “Prior to the war there was already disillusionment with negotiations and the peace process,” says Galia Golan, political science professor at the Interdisciplinary Centre at Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “Patriotism and nationalism were whipped up as never before by the media who treated the war as if it was one of the wars when we were really under attack.”
Benefiting from this jingoism, the biggest winner in the election is likely to be the super-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman with its generalized anti-Arab racism. A likely coalitionpartner of Mr Netanyahu, Mr Lieberman recently suggested that Israeli-Arab MPs be treated like Hamas. “Ideas that nobody would have dared to let cross their lips 10 or 20 years ago, lest they be thought utter fascists, have been bolstered in recent months by the war in the south,” lamented the daily Haaretz.
Senator Mitchell is the most powerful politician ever sent by Washington to talk to Israel and the Palestinians. The former Democratic Senate majority leader, his reputation as a peace-maker established by his successful mediation in Northern Ireland, wrote an even-handed report, promptly ignored by the Bush administration, after the start of the second intifada in 2000, calling, among other things, for a complete halt to Israeli settlement building on the West Bank.
Professor Golan says she is encouraged by his appointment “because he has tremendous political clout, but I don’t think Hillary Clinton [as Secretary of State] will be willing to put the sort of pressure on Israel that the US needs to put in order to get results.” She suspects that Mr Netanyahu will try to divert attention from the Palestinian issue by talking with Syria about a peace agreement.
Israel’s two most important actions in its relations with its neighbors have been in the form of unilateral withdrawals – from south Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005 – neither of which led to peace. This failure helps explain the dramatic shift to the right in Israeli politics.
The next government will be right wing but it is not clear how far to the right. All Israeli governments are shaky coalitions. Though Mr Netanyahu may emerge from the election as leader of the largest party, Likud will still have only 28 or 29 MPs or less than a quarter of the 120-member Knesset while, according to the latest polls, the centrist Kadima will win 24 or 25, Labor 16 or 17, Yisrael Beitenu 14 to 16 and the Sephardic religious party Shas nine.
Israeli voters do not like governments with bad relations with the US as would probably be the case if Mr Netanyahu relied solely on the right-wing parties. Instead he will probably bring in Labour or Kadima to give his coalition a more moderate image but without diluting his basic opposition to concessions to the Palestinians.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.