by Natalia Simanovsky
Tel Aviv – To the vast majority of people living in Israel, the 22 January election has a foregone conclusion: current Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be re-elected to lead the 19th Knesset. Instead, the questions on many people’s minds are how his re-election will affect the stalled peace process with the Palestinians and what kind of measures will be necessary to restart negotiations.
In this weekend’s edition of Haaretz, Netanyahu stated that the principles on which the new government will be formed would include a “sober-eyed political process [with the Palestinians]”. Given the diplomatic stalemate of the past two years, in addition to the more recent unilateral moves conducted by both sides, such as settlement expansion and the Palestinian Authority’s successful bid for non-member state observer status at the United Nations, Netanyahu’s intentions regarding the political process are unclear.
Moreover, Netanyahu will continue to face other pressing issues, such as tensions with Iran and Israel’s domestic socio-economic situation.
Yet, reaching a solution to the conflict remains a priority for the vast majority of Israelis. And given that Yisrael Beiteinu (a right wing, nationalist party which Likud, Netanyahu’s political party, merged with) supports the two-state solution, there may be some potential for work in this direction in his next term. In order for this to be a viable priority, however, a few things need to be set into motion.
To begin with, Netanyahu must make peace with the Palestinians a priority. One way to make that happen is for Netanyahu’s coalition government to include some members from the left wing and centre-left bloc, most notably Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party (a new party which puts the peace process at the top of its agenda). With Livni in the coalition government, we could see a renewed effort on behalf of Netanyahu vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In fact, a right wing government is not antithetical to negotiations; after all it was right wing Menachem Begin who signed the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
Second, Netanyahu’s government should release tax revenues it currently withholds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) to help quell the recent unrest in the West Bank. Withholding the monies was a way to punish the PA for pursuing its United Nations statehood bid. This measure cannot continue, because Netanyahu understands that punishing the PA financially may pose a security threat to Israel. For example, Israel requested a bridge loan of $100 million dollars from the International Monetary Fund to help the PA avoid financial collapse. Releasing the tax revenues would not only help pay the salaries of Palestinian government employees, but also help defuse the recent political and civic unrest in the West Bank.
Another course of action that could help restart the peace process is to avoid further settlement expansion. Even if the upcoming election sees the formation of another right wing coalition government, as some pundits have predicted, a settlement freeze is not such a ludicrous idea given that the former right wing government already agreed to a settlement freeze back in September 2011.
Indeed, last month’s announcement that Israel would begin to build 3,000 more homes in the West Bank as well as begin development on an area known as E1, which would cut off predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, drew international condemnation. Ceasing settlement expansion in the West Bank and sensitive areas such as East Jerusalem would show the PA that this government is ready for serious negotiations, and help foster the positive environment necessary to push the peace process forward.
But, in order for Netanyahu to move in the direction of the peace process, the PA must largely avoid further unilateral directives such as their statehood bid at the United Nations. These actions make the Israeli government and population feel that they are under constant threat.
What is needed is for both sides to create an environment that is conducive to sitting together to make the large-scale concessions that are so often talked about, yet continue to evade us.
Natalia Simanovsky has worked as a research officer at various think tanks and intergovernmental organisations throughout North America and the Middle East