With Israel’s new Knesset polarized and, in broad strokes, almost evenly divided between right and center-left following recent parliamentary elections, it remains to be seen what type of government will emerge to lead the country into the near future – or whether a government can be formed at all.
A final tally of the vote indicates that conservatives, led by sitting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will likely remain at the helm of a coalition including both religious nationalists and the center-left bloc.
How the new political landscape will impact policy remains to be seen, and among questions looming large will be the new government’s approach to three major issues standing before it – the future of the Middle East peace process, Iran, and Israel’s relations with the United States.
Senior reporter Cecily Hilleary discussed what can be expected on these three fronts with Natan Sachs, fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Middle East peace
Hilleary: Now, most people seem to agree that no matter who [Netanyahu] brings into the government, it is going to be a very different party than it was in the past. There are three big issues that I’d like to ask you about – the peace process, number one. Do you think this marks the official end?
Sachs: No, I think proclamations of ‘the end’ are usually, in international relations, overblown. The peace process as we knew it, the Oslo process, is already over. It has been over for some time. So that’s no news. It is true that with a continuation of Netanyahu’s rule and especially with a coalition that is very polarized on this issue, we are even less likely to see movement on the Palestinian question in the near future.
But it’s also worth bearing in mind that the area is very volatile, and the Palestinian Authority – and Palestinian society itself – is very split, deeply between Hamas and Fatah; so right now the situation looks very grim for movement on the Palestinian side.
“At the end of the day, there is still a necessity in most people’s view to partition this land.” – Natan Sachs, Brookings
But I would just say that in the next four years, many things could happen. The Middle East may stabilize somewhat. We all hope that Syria stabilizes just for the human sake. But there’s also the question of what happens with the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli politics too.
As you just mentioned, Israeli elections could happen a lot sooner than four years from now, and we may see another election before [U.S. President Barack] Obama finishes his term. If this is the case, the story on the Israeli side vis-à-vis the Palestinians during Obama’s term is not over yet. The last part of the story has not been written.
Hilleary: But the longer time goes on, the more the situation on the ground changes. There will come a point at which things will be irreversible, don’t you think?
Sachs: Yes, and to a certain degree, some things are already there. There are some things that have already changed the situation dramatically. There certainly are some elements that strongly threaten the possibility of a two-state solution.
I don’t mean at all to sound optimistic about it. But I would just say that the rhetoric about ‘the end’ is often overblown, simply for the question of what is the alternative? At the end of the day, there is still a necessity in most people’s view to partition this land. Whether it’s done through a full-fledged peace process or whether it’s done by very different means is another question, and I don’t know how it’s going to be done yet. So before declaring ‘the end,’ I would just caution to say that politics are a pendulum, Israeli politics as well. The center may yet resurge.
Hilleary: Now, jumping to Iran, Netanyahu made a lot of talk about the nuclear program throughout 2012. Is a strike on Iran high on his agenda now?
Sachs: The Iranian nuclear program – not necessarily a strike but the nuclear program – is not just high on the agenda, it is by far the first and most important issue, and some people quip about Israeli politics today that there are three important issues: Iran, Iran and Iran. And he has also made this clear in his electoral campaign, although Iran was not a major issue at all, in his ads, he did speak about Iran as a fundamental threat to Israel. There is every reason to believe that he believes his own rhetoric on this, that this is not just posturing.
“Doves and hawks on the Palestinian question are not necessarily doves and hawks in the same manner on the Iranian [issue].” – Natan Sachs, Brookings
That is not to say that Israel will go on a unilateral strike. The Israelis as a whole would certainly prefer that the international community, led by the United States, would deal with the Iranian issue. And there is also the question of – even if Netanyahu did want to go with it – what would he do with domestic opposition – opposition within his own security elite, some of whom are very opposed to a unilateral strike, and also opposition within the political system. The coalition in and of itself does not give us a hint as to where that would go, simply because the Iranian question is not completely parallel to the Palestinian one. Doves and hawks on the Palestinian question are not necessarily doves and hawks in the same manner on the Iranian [issue]. A case in point is [sitting Israeli Defense Minister] Ehud Barak who is relatively, although not relative to Netanyahu, a dove on Palestinian questions, but very much a hawk on Iran. And there are reverse cases, of course.
Hilleary: Let’s go to U.S.-Israeli relations. They were not helped any last week when Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in Bloomberg that Barack Obama has been criticizing Netanyahu for not really knowing what Israel’s interests are. How are the two governments likely to get along now?
“[W]e’re probably going to see a bit of a continuation of [the existing] frosty relationship at the very top….” – Natan Sachs, Brookings
Sachs: Well, we’re probably going to see a bit of a continuation of this frosty relationship at the very top, but on the other hand, close cooperation everywhere below that. Despite the bad relationship between the president and the prime minister – there’s no secret in that – there is actually very close, perhaps unprecedented cooperation on intelligence and on security. The conflict in Gaza last month was a case in point. Iron Dome, the anti-missile missile system that Israel deployed there, was funded mostly by the United States, and President Obama himself – not just Congress – and the Administration pushed for support on this. And Israelis notice this. In other words, a frosty relationship at the top can have important ramifications, certainly on coordination on Iran, but it doesn’t mean Washington and Jerusalem don’t get along closely on most other issues of day-to-day relations.
Hilleary: Is the U.S. likely to continue to push for the peace process?
Sachs: This is of course speculation; it’s hard to say. Part of it depends on conversations between Secretary of State-designate John Kerry, assuming he is confirmed – which I think we all can assume – and the President. As far as we can tell – and this is really speculation – Senator Kerry is more eager to engage the issue than the White House is. The White House was burnt by the last attempt at the beginning of the first Obama Administration, while Senator Kerry appears eager to try and move this forward and perhaps make this his legacy issue. I would guess that since the White House is where most decisions are made at the end of the day, a grand approach such as we saw at the beginning of the Obama Administration is unlikely. The chances of success are very low at the moment. And so most of his advisors caution the president against it, especially with his plate being so full of both domestic issues and foreign issues.
On the other hand, there is a lot to be done between complete passivity and a full-fledged push toward final status negotiations. There’s a lot that can be done to try and stall back fighting, to try and present some of the most egregious issues on both sides, and this is a role that Senator Kerry, if he becomes Secretary of State, might play an active role in.
Hilleary: And the last question – what about U.S. support of an Israeli strike on Iran?
Sachs: I doubt much would change. The U.S. position has been quite clear, and I tend to believe that skepticism about President Obama’s seriousness on this is unwarranted. The President has made it very clear that he takes Iran’s nuclear program as a core issue and he does this not so much for the sake of Israel. Like many, he views it as an issue of international peace and of non-proliferation. If Iran were to go nuclear or acquire nuclear weapons, the region, not just Israel alone but the Arab neighbors of Iran might very well try and acquire nuclear weapons down the road, and the idea of a nuclear-armed Middle East, not only Iran and reportedly Israel but others as well, is of course a grave threat to world peace, and this is why the president is probably quite serious about it.
There are important differences. For example, what constitutes the actual red line? Is it capabilities to build the weapon or is it actually building the weapon, and these differences are quite important. But the overall goal, I think, there is more similarity than people generally assume.
Listen to Cecily Hilleary’s interview with Natan Sachs (7:56):
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Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.