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Jan 21, 2013 | 11:15 GMT

Challenges for Israel's Next Government

Challenges for Israel's Next Government
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Settlement building under the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put additional pressure on an already weak Fatah in the West Bank over the past three years. On Jan. 16, the Construction and Housing Ministry announced new tenders for the construction of 198 housing units in the West Bank. The Israeli government has limited room to maneuver in its policies on West Bank settlements; this, in addition to the country's changing domestic political environment, has both given rise to and will ultimately limit the Jewish Home party, which has proposed policy alternatives to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, including the annexation of the West Bank's Area C. Parties on the other side of the political spectrum, such as the Labor Party, have shifted their platforms' emphasis to focus almost exclusively on socio-economic issues. 

Because of challenges on Israel's periphery and internal political divisions, current settlement policies are likely to continue regardless of the makeup of Israel's next government. These policies, combined with Fatah's weakness in the West Bank, could trigger fresh violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, creating a potential opportunity for Hamas.

Israeli politics have changed markedly in the past four years. The Kadima party, which made a serious attempt at forming a peace deal with the Palestinians in 2007 and held the most seats in the Knesset after the last set of elections, may not garner a single seat in upcoming legislative elections set for Jan. 22. The ruling Likud Party has joined with the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party and is expected to secure the most seats in the next Knesset, and the Labor Party — primarily focusing on domestic socio-economic issues — has received increasing support in the polls. The surprise of the election season so far has been the revitalized Jewish Home party. An election poll conducted by Israel Radio on Jan. 3 predicted that Jewish Home stands to gain a substantial number of Knesset seats in the upcoming elections, increasing its current holding of three seats to as many as 18 — enough to challenge the Labor Party as the second-largest party in the Knesset. Polls in Israel Hayom and Maariv newspapers have put the number closer to 13 and 14, respectively.

The current incarnation of Jewish Home was founded in 2008 as a combination of religious parties that included the National Religious Party. Though Jewish Home has only three seats in the current Knesset, its popularity has risen since Naftali Bennett became the party's leader during the November 2012 primaries. Bennett, who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the Israel Defense Forces and went on to work in the technology sector, has revitalized the party with his charismatic personality as well as his views that conflict resolution with the Palestinians is impossible and that Area C in the West Bank should be annexed to curb Palestinian violence.

Administrative Divisions in the West Bank

Administrative Divisions in the West Bank

While this view consists more of electoral rhetoric than realistic policy, it is helpful to understand exactly what it means to suggest annexation. In the 1993 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three temporary administrative districts: Areas A, B and C. Area C contains most Israeli settlements as well as almost all of the Jordan Valley and the Judean Desert. It is strategically important because it allows Israel to directly control its border with its eastern neighbor, Jordan. Area C represents approximately 61 percent of West Bank territory, but only 4 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank live in Area C; according to Bennett's proposal, these Palestinians would be given Israeli citizenship. The proposed annexation of Area C would suggest that attempts at peace have failed to ensure Israel's security and that only unilateral moves on Israel's part can achieve peace.

Annexation is not a new idea. The Area C annexation that Bennett advocates is similar to an idea associated with Yigal Allon, a mainstay of the Labor Party early in Israel's political history. After the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel took over the West Bank from Jordan, Allon proposed that the land that now corresponds to Area C be annexed by Israel and that the West Bank be returned to Jordan. Although the Allon Plan was not officially adopted, Israel built more and more settlements as it tried to solidify its hold on the West Bank and achieve strategic depth.

Bennett's platform will not become Israeli policy. Israel's relationship with the United States and its need for stability with its neighbors make that impossible, and Netanyahu will try to form a coalition with parties like the Labor Party or Yair Lapid's new centrist Yesh Atid party in order to avoid being subject to heavy political pressure from pro-settlement religious nationalist parties. Even if the Jan. 22 elections bolster Jewish Home's position in the Knesset and force Netanyahu to build a coalition with parties that strongly advocate further settlement in the West Bank and a more unilateral foreign policy, Israel still needs to maintain its relationship with the United States, despite the two countries' diverging interests on a number of issues.

Israel also cannot afford to destabilize already tense situations in Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Israel's peaceful relations with Jordan and Egypt in particular have defined Israel's geopolitics over the past 40 years. Policies like Bennett's would spark popular appeals in Egypt for the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced government to cut off relations with Israel. In Jordan, a majority of whose population is Palestinian, such policies could enflame an already tense domestic situation as Jordanian King Abdullah attempts to strike a balance between Palestinian-Jordanians, tribal East Bankers and an ascendant Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood.

Threat of a Weak Fatah

While Israel is constrained in what it can do, it faces challenges in the West Bank to which it must respond. Hamas, after claiming a symbolic victory against Israel in the latest Gaza crisis, has shifted its attention to expanding its presence in the West Bank, where it hopes to capitalize on Fatah's waning popularity. Though Fatah remains deeply distrustful of Hamas' intentions, it is engaged in negotiations with Hamas for a unity government meant to allow for collaboration in the West Bank. Israel is already experiencing great difficulty in maintaining its long-held strategy of bolstering Fatah at the expense of Hamas; facing Hamas' rising influence in both Gaza and the West Bank would further complicate Israel's ability to exploit the divided Palestinian factions.

This situation is tantamount to an existential crisis for Fatah in the West Bank. Fatah's legitimacy derives in part from its role as the sole Palestinian representative able to secure peace and national determination through negotiations with Israel. If Israel is moving, however slightly, toward disillusionment with the peace process and unilateral actions such as the annexation of Area C, the idea that Palestinians will ever have a contiguous state of their own could be threatened. Even the suggestion of such unilateral action makes the already weak Fatah even more susceptible to attempts by Hamas to expand its presence in the West Bank. Rumors from the West Bank about the possibility of a third intifada (with Hamas' encouragement) must be viewed in this context. Increased settlement activity will put pressure on Fatah to show Israel that there will be untenable consequences for such unilateral actions. Fatah has already taken steps in this direction with the U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood and with reconciliation talks with Hamas.

Disillusion with the Peace Process

Since 1993, Israel has used the idea of a two-state solution as its main tactic in securing its borders with the Palestinians; even during periods of conflict, such as the Second Intifada, negotiations or unilateral disengagement from Palestinian territory were seen as trying to stabilize the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians while preserving the possibility of a Palestinian state. Furthermore, there has been a measure of political will in Israel to make the pursuit of such a peace deal a national priority. From Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak's negotiations in the late 1990s to Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza in December 2006 and Ehud Olmert's concessions at the Annapolis Conference in 2007, the pursuit of a two-state solution has been almost required of Israeli leaders — even Netanyahu declared his support for it at his Bar Ilan speech in 2009.

The rise of a new majority of Israeli voters who want the government to either enact pro-settlement policies or to simply focus on domestic socio-economic issues presents a challenge to the paradigm of a two-state solution and is indicative of how Israel's domestic political environment could prevent it from pursuing strategic flexibility in the West Bank. This gives voice to a particular perspective that negotiations have done little to solve Israel's security problems; that disengagement from the Gaza Strip served to empower Hamas rather than peaceful Palestinian elements; and that, in a volatile post-Arab Spring Middle East, Israel must turn inward to take care of its own problems.

If poll numbers hold, Netanyahu will be tasked with building a coalition to form the next Israeli government. It is unclear whether he will be forced to include the Jewish Home party in that coalition — there have been rumors that Netanyahu would prefer to include parties like the Labor Party, as much for economic reasons and the passing of a new budget as for allowing him flexibility in pursuing Israel's foreign policy agenda. Regardless of whether such a coalition can be built without Jewish Home, the government will increasingly be caught between Israel's imperatives to maintain a close relationship with the United States and ensure regional stability while also securing a modicum of strategic depth and stability with Palestinian neighbors. These constraints, along with the country's internal political scene, reduce the number of viable options Israel has in dealing with a weakening Fatah, which may try to assert itself to maintain its legitimacy.

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