On the same day that the world erupted in joyous, teary-eyed celebration following the selection of a new pope, a slightly less climactic breakthrough was reached thousands of kilometres away as four Israeli political parties, nearly two months after elections, quietly decided to form a coalition government. Right away, the deal seemed like it might fall apart over a last-minute dispute regarding deputy prime ministerial appointments, but two days later, all differences have been ironed out and the coalition agreement signed.
The chances were never exactly high that Israel would bend far enough to conclude a successful peace agreement with the Palestinians any time soon. However, what little optimism I had gained after January’s elections has now dissipated almost entirely.
The most noteworthy feature in the new centre-right government is the complete absence of ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in years, enabling the coalition partners to commit to ending draft exemptions and other privileges for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. In itself, this is a good thing and should be celebrated by all who value secular government.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. In the Israeli political system, the settler movement has no greater friends, and the peace movement no greater enemies, than the secular and moderately religious right-wing nationalist parties, like Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, which dominate the incoming government.
After the elections, there was some hope that the surprisingly strong showing by the centrist Yesh Atid party, with its relatively moderate views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, might push the government towards compromise. But Yesh Atid never prioritized peace talks as highly as it did domestic issues, and during coalition negotiations, party leader Yair Lapid aligned himself firmly with Habayit Hayehudi’s far-right rejectionist leader Naftali Bennett.
Also, one of the terms of the coalition agreement involves a plan to increase the electoral threshold for representation in the Knesset from the current two per cent up to four per cent. This will likely reduce the amount of time necessary for post-election negotiations and allow for greater government stability. But all this will come at the expense of the small Arab parties which could quite possibly be shut out from all future Knessets. Raising the electoral threshold may have the effect of even further marginalizing the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The greatest hope for peace in the incoming government lies in its smallest coalition member, Hatnuah, a new centrist party composed of former Kadima and Labor members, which has made the renewal of peace talks its number-one issue. In addition to gaining a seat at the cabinet table, party leader Tzipi Livni will be made the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.
It is worth remembering, however, that when Livni was foreign minister in a previous government, Israel killed 1400 Gazans in Operation Cast Lead. For her to be the new government’s strongest voice for peace is perhaps the most depressing development of all.