Change of Guard in Tel Aviv – what hopes for peace?

It’s a momentous day because Netanyahu has been voted out of office and like his predecessor Ehud Olmert now faces the prospect of jail and so will hopefully disappear. He leaves power as Prime Ministers often do because he lost. But as Anshel Pfeffer in today’s edition of Ha’aretz points out, he is overall a winner.

The man who was written off so many times as a passing and inconsequential politician, even after his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, became Israel’s longest-serving leader – even longer than the founder, David Ben-Gurion. Someone who managed to hold onto power for 15 years didn’t lose, even if he was forced out at the end.

According to Pfeffer all previous Israeli Prime Ministers thought that the problems between Israel and Palestine had to somehow be solved, otherwise the rest of the world wouldn’t leave them alone.

(Netanyahu) ..was the first to recognize the fatigue of world leaders, as well as that of Arab dictators, over the Palestinian issue. As a ruthless pragmatist, he correctly assessed that as time passed, his fellow statesmen would prefer economic and security ties with Israel, and that the Palestinians had nothing to offer.

Netanyahu has convinced a majority of Israelis that they can carry on ignoring international law and treating the Palestinians as second-class citizens, because world leaders may criticise Israel but, in the end, won’t really interfere. As Pfeffer goes on to say:

Netanyahu won in the international arena by reversing the diplomatic paradigm of the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the local scene when he proved that the price of the occupation is not only bearable but almost worth it.

The other article that caught my attention today was written my favourite Ha’aretz journalist – the veteran Gideon Levy – who ponders the future with Naftali Bennet, the designated Prime Minister for the next two years.

He starts on a pessimistic note:

…in the end the Pretoria of the Middle East chose a prime minister, and he will continue to do as the Pretorians do.

In South Africa, too, it didn’t much matter who was prime minister as long as apartheid continued. Who cared whether John Vorster was more moderate than P.W. Botha, or vice versa – they championed the same regime, which always determined who led it.

It’s the same in Israel. Until the Israeli F.W. de Klerk is born – and apparently he has not been born, not even with Bennett’s swearing-in – then the margins for historic change between one prime minister and the next are very slim indeed, nearly invisible, just as they were in South Africa.

But Levy then goes on to develop a more optimistic scenario:

All we can do now is dream. …imagine that in his allotted two years as premier, in which he can remain an obscure footnote in the list of Israel’s prime ministers or turn into a world-class revolutionary, he takes the latter choice. Just imagine.

The odds are slim to none. They were the same for all his predecessors, from the left and the right. But the odds of Bennett becoming prime minister were also very poor, and yet he is. The chance of him doing now what an Israeli prime minister will do one day – but only when Israel reaches the edge of the abyss – is imaginary. And yet: Just imagine.

I won’t put a bet on Naftali Bennett having his De Klerk moment and emerging as a statesman, but I do sincerely hope that he will rise to the challenge. He may need a bit of help and in particular he needs to hear strong signals from the UK, the EU and of the course the Biden administration that Israel has to change or forfeit the support it has come to take for granted. Our Lib Dem MPs, led by foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran who is listened to with great respect on this issue, – not least as the first MP of Palestinian origin – have an important role to play alongside sympathetic MPs from all parties. They need to keep up the pressure on Johnson and Raab to recognise Palestine and in turn put real pressure on the new Israeli government to change.

* John Kelly is a member in Warwick District, Secretary of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine, and a member of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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29 Comments

  • John Marriott 14th Jun '21 - 9:41am

    Not much, Mr Kelly, thanks largely to Messrs Sykes, Picot, Balfour and Samuel. Perhaps we could add TE Lawrence into the mix as well!

  • @ John Marriott You can add Herbert Asquith (the PM who set up the de Bunsen Committee and appointed Sykes in the last month of the last ever ‘pure’ Liberal Government, – April, 1915), and David Lloyd George (PM November, 1917, when Balfour made his Declaration) to the list.

    History, and Liberal Imperialism, can throw up inconvenient facts sometimes, John.

  • The difference between Israel, N.I. and S. Africa was that neither N.I. nor S. Africa had a strong foreign lobby ( in fact, quite the opposite)..

    I have no optimism about the future of Palestinians. To be honest they were doomed, as a people, to extinction before Israel actually existed..The whole concept of a Jewish homeland was sold to the world as “A land with no people for a people with no land”..

    The ‘restoration’ of a land for Jews goes right back to the reformation and with the rise of fundamentalism, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among British and American Protestants, it became a ‘when’ not an ‘if’..There is no use arguing with Fundamentalists be they Jewish or Christian..

  • Nonconformistradical 14th Jun '21 - 11:52am

    Perhaps the essential point about NI and S Africa was reaching a situation when someone in a position of power came to realise they ‘couldn’t go on on like this’.

    Is Israel anywhere near that? Doesn’t look like it.

  • Leaving aside the insult that the headline (the guard was changed in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel where the Knesset meets , not Tel Aviv), I am more hopeful than John in the new Israeli Government.
    Yes Bennett is a racist & a nationalist, and the new Government is held together by their hatred of Netanyahu more than any agreed set of policies. However, Bennett’s room for maneuverer while taking the new Government is severely as he needs to take the other 7 factions (some which are made up of more than one party) with him or the Coalition will collapse leading to another (the 5 in just of 2 years) election. Also, while Bennett is the PM, he does not lead the biggest faction (that is Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid) .
    The new Government is backed formally by an Arab party ( a first for Israel) and one of the new Ministers is Issawi Frej of Meretz (a secular Socialist party) who is the first Arab to be a Minister in Israel. This is to be applauded.
    While there may not be much change in policy in the next few months (other than to stop the State funding of the ultra-orthodox settlements in Occupied Palestine which are home to the terrorists of the “Hill Top Youth”) I do expect a big change in the rhetoric coming from the new Government and hope that tsi will start a dialogue that can be built on.

  • David Evans 14th Jun '21 - 2:00pm

    It is sad to see that the centrists have been outmanoeuvred by the right once again. When the leader of the fourth largest party becomes PM for the first two years ahead of the leader of the second one, you know the right recon the parliament will probably last less than two years.

    Of course the alternative was giving Netanyahu another chance. Whether in the long run that will prove to be sufficient to make any sort of progress, is an open question.

  • It is an interesting article, John. The Biden administration will surely have an important role to play but perhaps of more relevance may be Israel’s rapproachment with the Arab world following normalising of relations with the UAE and Bahrain, in line with those that exist with Jordan and Egypt. The 2002 Arab peace inititative promoted by King Abdullah remains the most feasible option. The plan offered Israel full normalisation with the entire Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal from all occupied territories, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Lebanon, as well as giving the Palestinians East Jerusalem as their capital and reaching a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees who, in the Arab-Israel war of 1948-49, had fled or been expelled from their homes in what became Israel.

  • John Marriott 14th Jun '21 - 5:12pm

    The real impediment to a fair political solution may actually be the pure form of PR employed to elect people to the Knesset. If ever there was a need for a 5% rule, surely there is one here!

    My reference earlier to certain figures from history is still valid. It was out of the car crash of the Ottoman Empire and the western powers’ attempts to gerrymander an area probably so they could gain control by proxy of its greatest natural resource that this present situation has emerged.

    Trump’s antics as President have just made things that much worse.

  • @Leon “Leaving aside the insult that the headline (the guard was changed in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel where the Knesset meets , not Tel Aviv), I am more hopeful than John in the new Israeli Government.”

    I hadn’t meant the reference to Tel Aviv as an insult but I guess I instinctively can’t bring myself to acknowledge (West) Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while the Palestinians are denied the right to treat East Jerusalem as theirs.

    I am cautiously hopeful that this might be the moment that Gideon Levy, who wrote the second article I referred to, is imagining. And I was pleased to learn today that this veteran journalist has just been awarded the prestigious Sokolo prize for journalism in Israel https://www.haaretz.com/life/.premium-haaretz-journalist-gideon-levy-awarded-israel-s-top-journalism-prize-1.9904753 with the following citation:
    “Journalist Gideon Levy regularly challenges the Israeli consensus in courageous work on the ground that brings the testimonies and stories of those who do not receive adequate exposure in the local media discussion – the voices of Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and in the past the Gaza Strip”. Levy “presents original and independent positions that do not surrender to convention or social codes, and in doing so enriches the public discourse fearlessly.”

  • Martin Pierce 15th Jun '21 - 7:58am

    In general, it’s a bad idea to let leaders of small extremist parties become prime minister in coalitions. They tend to be more ruthless than their less extreme coalition partners, who expect more reasonableness than they get. Per David Evans’ comment about this showing the right expects the parliament to last less than two years, this can even be made to be the case. After 2 years of using such executive powers as the office holds, what’s to stop Bennett flouncing out of the coalition on some fabricated disagreement just as Lapid is ready to take over?

  • @MartinPierce “After 2 years of using such executive powers as the office holds, what’s to stop Bennett flouncing out of the coalition on some fabricated disagreement just as Lapid is ready to take over?”

    You’re quite right and Bennett does look awful. But a) we must hope he has what I call a De Klerk moment and b) Johnson and Biden need to help him firmly on the way. And the Lib Dems need to keep up the pressure on our government to put pressure on Bennett and Lapid.

  • Nonconformistradical 15th Jun '21 - 9:46am

    “De Klerk moment”
    That’s what I was thinking about. Mut I’m not holding my breath

  • Laurence Cox 15th Jun '21 - 10:04am

    @John Marriott

    ‘The real impediment to a fair political solution may actually be the pure form of PR employed to elect people to the Knesset. If ever there was a need for a 5% rule, surely there is one here!’

    The threshold at the moment is 3.25%; from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Israel

    “The electoral threshold for a party to be allocated a Knesset seat was only 1% until 1988; it was then raised to 1.5% and remained at that level until 2003, when it was again raised to 2%. On 11 March 2014, the Knesset approved a new law to raise the threshold to 3.25% (approximately 4 seats)”

    Do you really believe that raising it to 5% (approximately 6 seats) will make that much of a difference, especially as parties are allowed to form electoral alliances to help them reach the threshold?

  • Appointing the leader of a minor extremist party as head of government with only a few other members of that party in the cabinet. What can possibly go wrong?

  • John Marriott 15th Jun '21 - 11:31am

    @Laurence Cox
    YES!

  • Nonconformistradical 15th Jun '21 - 11:48am

    On the threshold level – it appears that Israel is not divided up into constituencies – there’s just one nationwide one electing all 120 members of the Knesset – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Israeli_legislative_election.

    Might that help very small parties (maybe more than one of them) get over that hurdle?

  • Alex Macfie 15th Jun '21 - 1:45pm

    A threshold might shut out moderates as well as extremists. A more effective way of marginalising the extremists and thus producing a better political environment would be to switch to Single Transferable Vote, as Michael Meadowcroft suggested in another thread. The extreme parties are likely to do less well because they would not get many transfers from moderate parties.

  • Nonconformistradical 15th Jun '21 - 3:07pm

    @Alex Macfie
    STV I agree with you but unfortunately dominant parties rarely want to share power with voters, never mind give it away to the voters.

  • Israel’s predicament echoes Apartheid South Africa’s in only one respect; world opinion has suddenly turned against them and they need to respond. But South Africa had to turn the entire basis of its society upside down, whereas Israel is being asked to do nothing within its own borders; the demand is merely that it gives up neighbouring territory it never owned in the first place.
    On top of that, huge peace dividends are there for the taking. The end of the occupation will lift the burden of responsibility for Gaza and the West Bank from Israel’s shoulders, and will let Israeli citizens as well as Palestinians sleep peacefully in their beds at night for the first time for generations.
    Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries in the Middle East, and as John Kelly points out, until Netanyahu appeared on the scene, most Israeli politicians accepted that having a Palestinian state alongside Israel was inevitable.
    The other lesson we learned from South Africa was that the end of their resistance to world opinion came very suddenly. Pessimists in this string, please note. If you wander away from the campaign for justice for the Palestinian people at this point, you might miss the most exciting part.

  • Laurence Cox 16th Jun '21 - 9:47am

    @John Marriott

    WHY? What is magic about your 5% threshold; and when it doesn’t work will you then say a 10% threshold will make everything right? Assertion is not reasoned argument.

  • Andy Daer 15th Jun ’21 – 5:58pm…………..Israel’s predicament echoes Apartheid South Africa’s in only one respect; world opinion has suddenly turned against them and they need to respond. But South Africa had to turn the entire basis of its society upside down, whereas Israel is being asked to do nothing within its own borders; the demand is merely that it gives up neighbouring territory it never owned in the first place…….

    And remove the laws discriminating against non-Jewish citizens…

    As for “Until Netanyahu appeared on the scene, most Israeli politicians accepted that having a Palestinian state alongside Israel was inevitable.” a glance at Israel’s response to Bush’s “2002 road map for peace” initiative shows different..Even a ‘settlement freeze’ to allow talks was rejected, as “impossible” (due to the need to build new houses for settlers who start families) by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who told the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell “What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?”
    Israel will never willingliy give up an inch of it’s ‘occupied’ territories. The only nation who could possibly force Israel to comply with international law is the USA; when that happens the devil will be skiing to work!

  • John Marriott 16th Jun '21 - 4:51pm

    @Laurence Cox
    Who said anything about a “reasoned argument”? There are clearly too many parties in the Knesset, not quite the slightly exaggerated thirty three parties in the Reichstag referred to by Hitler in that famous speech from 1932(?). They chose 5% for the 1953 Bundestag elections and it seemed to work. OK, it’s arbitrary; but it strikes me that if ANY party can gain 5% of the popular vote, it deserves representation – and that would include the National Front/British National Party etc if we had the same system here.

  • Nonconformistradical 16th Jun '21 - 10:01pm

    @John Marriott 16th Jun ’21 – 4:51pm
    It would be better if you were comparing like with like. As it is, it seems to me you are muddying the waters.

    Israel has one constituency covering the whole country – for a small party to get 5% across the country might be quite feasible. Even if such a party’s support is concentrated in one area it might still achieve that.

    But in referring to the 1953 West Germany election you are not comparing like with like. West Germany did (and reunited Germany still does) have 2 parts to the electoral system – constituencies in each of which 1 member is elected by FPTP and a separate party list vote.

    According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Bundestag_constituencies there are 299 constituencies.

    In the party list part according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_system_of_Germany members are elected from party lists in separate regions. And the 5% threshold is at regional level, not nationwide, so getting over the 5% hurdle in several regions would be more difficult for a minor party with perhaps limited campaign resources.

  • @expats – yes, I rather glossed over the Nation State law, but when Palestinians are able to migrate to a free Palestine, Israel will find such discriminatory laws a bit counterproductive. The Palestinian labour force would be missed in Israel. There is also no reason to believe that once the two sides have recognised their common humanity and made a commitment to live alongside each other in peace, anyone in Israel would want to be reminded of the bad old days, and it is likely that they would want to get rid of that kind of legislation as soon as possible.

  • Laurence Cox 17th Jun '21 - 11:29am

    @John Marriott

    If you took the trouble to look at the facts, you would see that of the 13 parties currently represented in the Knesset, there are already 9 parties with over 5% of the vote, and another three between 4.5 and 5%.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knesset

    Raising the threshold to 5% will have little or no effect on the number of parties.

  • Denis Mollison 17th Jun '21 - 12:31pm

    @Nonconformistradical
    I think the 5% threshold in Germany is at federal level – from wikipedia “Seats in the German Bundestag distributed by regional lists are only given to parties passing a five percent electoral threshold of the federally valid second votes. Alternatively, if a party wins at least three constituencies, a party still gains seats by proportional representation according to the number of second votes they received.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_system_of_Germany#Electoral_threshold)

    Obviously the constituency results can rescue a party that performs badly, and will help geograhically local parties, but the 5% threshold can have drastic effect. In 2013 the FDP – possibly the closest Germany has to the LDs – vote fell to 4.8%, and as a result they got no seats (they had 14.6% and 93 seats at the previous election in 2009).

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Jun '21 - 1:57pm

    @Denis Mollinson
    Not sure about that. https://www.bundestag.de/en/parliament/plenary/distributionofseats
    states: “The distribution of seats in the German Bundestag is proportional to the numbers of votes cast for the various parties. Seats are allocated first to the candidates who won the most first votes in the constituencies, before the remaining seats are allocated to the candidates on the party list in the Land concerned, in the order in which they are listed.”
    On the party list in the land (i.e. region) concerned – suggests to me it is at regional level. If you said it’s confusing I’d agree!
    The other big difference from Israel is in not having all the seats in the country allocated this way

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