Leave the page blank?

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My initial inclination in composing this article about the new, expanded governing coalition in Israel and the peace process was to leave the page blank. It is painfully obvious that there will be no serious peace process between this government and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Neither Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas really wants the kind of "peace process" we’ve become accustomed to: direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, held in a spirit of compromise, aimed at resolving all the final status issues separating the two sides.

Netanyahu seemingly wants to keep on settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem until the Palestinians give up and accept a truncated entity with its capital in Ramallah. Abbas learned from his negotiations with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 that (in Abbas’ words), "the gaps were too wide" between his positions and those of Israel’s most moderate leader in recent decades. Ever since, he has been casting about almost incoherently for alternative ways to proceed: United Nations recognition, reconciliation with Hamas, resignation, elections, "non-violent" intifada, etc.

Meanwhile, US presidential elections have neutralized any serious third-party effort to intervene until at least the first half of 2013.

The fact that the Kadima party under Shaul Mofaz has joined the coalition does little to alter this dangerous paradigm of stalemate. Mofaz and Netanyahu made it clear from the outset by glaring omission that Mofaz’s intriguing peace plan–for a Palestinian state with temporary borders, an Israeli initiative to remove settlers and an international commitment to a timetable for negotiating the equivalent of the 1967 borders–is not on their agenda. Under current conditions, the Israeli public will be extremely lucky if the Netanyahu-Mofaz duo succeeds in delivering substantively on its declared priority issues–electoral reform and universal national service–before the countdown to mandatory elections in late 2013.

There is only one conceivable way in which Netanyahu’s decision to postpone elections in favor of an expanded coalition could seriously affect the peace process. It is admittedly highly speculative, but nevertheless worth examining.

I believe that one of the primary catalysts for Netanyahu’s original decision to initiate elections in September of this year was his fear of a reelected President Barack Obama in the United States. Netanyahu cannot forget that in 1999, one of the reasons he lost an election to Ehud Barak was the Israeli public’s perception that then-President Bill Clinton was angry at Netanyahu for torpedoing the peace process. For a large majority of Israelis, their leader’s capacity to maintain good relations with Washington is of primary importance; a leader who fails in this capacity–Netanyahu in 1999, Yitzhak Shamir in 1992–is punished by the electorate.

Netanyahu, according to this logic, feared that a reelected President Obama would, in the course of 2013, go over his head to signal the Israeli public that its leader had lost favor in the White House because of the Palestinian issue and possibly Iran. This would happen just as Netanyahu faced a reelection campaign. Better, therefore, to renew his electoral mandate prior to the American elections, in order to withstand the anticipated presidential disfavor without having to deal with Israeli public displeasure.

Obviously, Netanyahu has now chosen to abandon this strategy. Perhaps the "grandeur" of leading a huge coalition, humiliating Kadima by swallowing it at a bargain price, and rather uniquely serving out his full term was too tempting. Perhaps Netanyahu has concluded that Obama will not be reelected, or that he might be reelected but won’t prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, it is not at all certain that Washington will find a compelling reason to rejoin the hapless international effort of recent years even after the emergence of a new administration. Iran, Afghanistan/Pakistan and the fallout from the "Arab spring" all appear to rate higher priority in strategic planning for next year.

Perhaps I’m mistaken and fear of Obama’s influence on the Israeli public was never a factor for Netanyahu.

There is one conceivable scenario in which we’ll find out: if Obama is reelected, and if he gives vent to his accumulated frustration with Netanyahu’s condescending and humiliating behavior in the Oval Office and before Congress, and if Mofaz decides to energize Kadima, bolt the coalition and make the Palestinian issue and the US-Israel relationship the focus of Israeli elections in 2013.

I doubt this will happen, though. Too many "ifs". Better, perhaps, to leave the page blank.

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