Barely a month ago, the arc of Israeli politics seemed pretty clear, if not all that promising. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had teamed up with the even more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, and the combined bloc was poised to dominate the election. Its probable coalition partners included Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which wants to formally annex a chunk of the West Bank and is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel was lurching to the right, throwing away what might be its last chance at a workable peace with the Palestinians.
This was more or less how I read things at the time. I was hardly alone. And then elections in January proved us wrong. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu did win a plurality of seats, and Jewish Home finished a strong — though weaker than expected — fourth. But the right did not surge overall. And the biggest advance was achieved by the centrist Yesh Atid party, whose leader, Yair Lapid, supports a two-state solution, even if it was not the focus of his platform.
I wrote after the elections, that their results were unlikely to herald much progress on negotiations with the Palestinians. The issue simply didn’t factor in the campaign. But the Israeli centre and left had shown itself to have life, forcing Netanyahu to say he would try to form a broad coalition, rather than seeking refuge among likeminded nationalists.
Now that coalition is beginning to take shape. Netanyahu has forged an alliance with the Hatnua party and its chair Tzipi Livni — a strong proponent of a negotiated peace built on two states. Livni will be justice minister, and is charged with leading negotiations on the Palestinian issue.
There are still reasons to be cynical. There always are. Netanyahu showed no real inclination toward aiding in the creation of a Palestinian state when his political position was stronger. He agreed to brief negotiations when pressured by the Americans, but these collapsed when he wouldn’t extend a freeze on the growth of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Settlers’ numbers have increased on his watch. His new apparently moderate stance is likely derived of political necessity.
Livni, despite promising not to be a “fig leaf” for Netanyahu, may similarly reason that it’s better to be in government than out of it. But this seems unlikely. In 2009 she turned down a chance to join Netanyahu’s coalition because she didn’t believe he was sufficiently committed to a settlement. She retired form politics and came back, in her words, “to fight for peace.”
Livni’s return to power is irritating all the right people. Settler leader Benny Katzover, who believes Israel’s democracy is less important than its Jewish identity, sees her inclusion in cabinet as a threat to the settlement project. Hopefully he’s right.
None of this adds up to a revolutionary change in Israeli politics, but it is a positive development. While peace is hardly imminent, it no longer seems as out of reach as it did only weeks ago.