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A Coalition That Won't Coalesce, And Unmet Conditions Of A Settlement

As nearly everyone knows, Israel's political system is parliamentary democracy taken to a lunatic degree. I had hopes a month back that somehow the Likud with Bibi Netanyahu at its head, Kadima with Tsipi Livni as its leader, and Labor spearheaded by Ehud Barak would be able to forge a political alliance that was Zionist and secular, egalitarian and capitalist, alert to its enemies and open to peace. This last dyad is the most essential. But much of it hinges on the Palestinians and, despite all of the frantic diplomacy in the Middle East, nothing good is happening among them. 

The last piece of news on which the powers are trying to put a nice twist is actually disastrous. It is the resignation of Salam Fayyad as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in order to smooth the way for a reunion of Fatah and Hamas. Fayyad was the one person you could trust with money in the Palestinian galaxy. So that is gone, just as a big load of international cash is scheduled to arrive. And what is really expected from the hudna--if there is a hudna--between Ramallah and Gaza? Let's pick odds. My (informed) guess: more intra-Arab carnage within a few weeks of the proclamation of the truce. 

Anyway, the trio I had hoped for is kaput. And Netanyahu, a reasonable man open to compromise, is stuck with a coalition that won't coalesce. His most distasteful partner is Yisrael Beiteinu whose leader is Avigdor Lieberman, under investigation by the police for what, alas, has come to be quite common in the Jewish state: corruption at the top, sort of like with Arabs. What can one say good about Lieberman? Well, he is not a fascist or even exactly a neo-fascist. Still, the content and form of his politics are, well, Putinesque. The Palestinians are to Lieberman what the Chechens are to Putin. So if we can deal with Putin, and we seem to be very eager to deal with Putin, we can also deal with Lieberman. But I would want to be the one pouring the vodka. Actually, I'd prefer to be out of the room. On the other hand, Lieberman and his band of cossacks are also not murderers or terrorists, which is something you can't say about many of the Palestinians who are being enticed to the table.

What's also not widely known about Lieberman is that he has already been sitting in Ehud Olmert's peace-seeking government for several years, and did not rock the boat. But, yes, when he speaks about Arabs he is sometimes disgusting, although last week he announced that he'd leave his home in a West Bank settlement for peace with the Palestinians. 

Lieberman's signature issue is not the Arabs but the cause of a completely secular society in Israel. Since his electoral base rests on immigrants from Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union whose status as Jews may not quite be religiously up-to-snuff, his party is the most reliable on issues of civil marriage, pork products everywhere including the army, Sabbath observance and orthodox intrusions wherever and everywhere they intrude. On these matters, he and his party are even more trustworthy than the deep-into-decline left-wing parliamentary faction Meretz.

The third party that will anchor but not permanently stabilize Netanyahu's government is Shas, a group made up of ultra-orthodox Jews who mostly descend from countries in the Arab world. They tend to be poor and therefore dependent on government hand-outs for large families (which also helps the Palestinians, of course.  This is the binding currency of the coalition, and it drives the Likud nuts. Shas is also blase about the territories, which does not especially endear it to its partners.

Shas also has amulets and magic trinkets in its basket, and reveres wonder rabbis both dead and alive. The most alive (at 88) is Basra-born Ovadia Yosef who has uttered much nonsense in his career. During the campaign he put an interdict on votes for Yisrael Beiteinu and labeled Lieberman "Satan." This is rough stuff. How his adepts will sit at cabinet meetings with Lieberman without being spooked... that's a problem for them to work out by themselves. 

And so let me write about Netanyahu. Bibi's desire to form a government with Ehud Barak and Tsipi Livni tells you much more about him than the dour circumstance in which he finds himself and his party now. Yes, he is on the moderate right in economic matters. But his successors--Barak and Olmert--were not enthusiasts of the state socialist model either, and the head of the Bank of Israel (a Rhodesian-American immigrant, Stanley Fisher) did scrupulous prophylaxis of the financial system, more or less barring sub-prime mortgages and other (what we call in Yiddish) chochmes out of Israel's money blood stream.

In fact, he was the only Israeli prime minister to agree to a withdrawal from deepest Hebron, where 100,000 Palestinians live but where Jews had also lived since Abraham bought land there until a massacre in 1929. (Don't get me wrong: this is not a final settlement of the Hebron issue.)  And he also agreed--until Hafaz Assad squelched the whole deal--to a large withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The extent of this proposed withdrawal is now mired in the different accounts of the various participants. Suffice it to say, the least concession attributed to Bibi, very large indeed, was one of which I would disapprove. And I suspect it was much greater than his partisans now argue.

So the demonizing of Netanyahu is simply nonsense. He knows that in a very existential sense Israel needs peace. But he will not make a peace that would fail on the morrow. And peace can no longer be mapped along the armistice frontiers of 1949, which is what the 1967 lines are precisely. Sixty years of history cannot be reduced to an empty formula. Peace will be made when the Palestinians agree among themselves that they truly want a state that will not make war on its neighbor. Only when Israel can assume that land vacated for the state of Palestine will not be used to launch rockets and missiles and terror against its population will the settlement come, and then it could be swift and final.