The problems are structural and endemic

The internal political situation in both Israel and Palestine has from the start rendered it extremely difficult for the current peace process to succeed. The problems are not ephemeral or incidental but rather structural and endemic to the political culture on both sides.

Israel’s extremely pluralistic nature is reflected faithfully in its electoral system. Elections generate ruling parliamentary coalitions composed of many diverse parties, each with its own particularistic agenda. By and large, these coalitions are dedicated to political survival; it is not easy to create and sustain a stable governing coalition dedicated to peace with the Palestinians. Indeed, the Palestinian issue has been the cause of the collapse of every ruling coalition for the past 20 years. And because this issue preoccupies Israeli political life, the average lifespan of an Israeli government is two years.

In the current Knesset, even though a majority favors a compromise two-state solution with the Palestinians, there are elements in PM Ehud Olmert’s coalition that do not. As the negotiating process with the Palestinians picks up steam, they are beginning to defect, beginning last week with the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman. Olmert’s prospects of forming a stable alternative coalition are constrained by his limited capacity to co-opt the ten members of Knesset from the Arab parties (who as anti-Zionists and pro-Palestinians would not be welcomed by other members of the coalition) as well as by opposition to his peace strategy from within a faction of his own party, Kadima.

In addition, in the current instance the prime minister is particularly unpopular. His position is threatened by the upcoming Winograd commission final report on management of the Second Lebanon War a year and a half ago. His only hope is to weather that report, hang onto a Knesset majority long enough to negotiate a framework agreement with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, then seek new elections with that agreement as his platform. It is doubtful he will succeed, not only because of Israeli politics but also in view of the substantive gaps still separating Israelis and Palestinians regarding the core issues of refugees and Jerusalem.

Sadly, in the longer term, Israelis, Palestinians and those third parties that wish them well must bear in mind the major constraint placed upon Israel’s capacity to do a deal with the Palestinians by Israel’s own political system. This is not an excuse; it’s simply a fact of life. Essentially it means that a ruling coalition in Israel can, in the best of circumstances, hope to register a single step forward with the Palestinians before crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Interestingly, the structural deficiencies of the Israeli political system did not hinder it in making peace with Egypt and Jordan, largely because those peace-making efforts did not impact measurably on the Land of Israel issues that divide Israelis since 1967.

The situation is even worse in the Palestinian Authority, where the introduction of democratic elections back in 1996 and a second election in 2006 ended up enfranchising, first, the corrupt Fateh party and then the Islamist militant Hamas. Between them, these two problematic organizations have now divided Palestine into two separate territorial entities, West Bank/Fateh (though the Ramallah government’s grip on power throughout the entire West Bank is far from complete) and Gaza/Hamas. Fateh’s current conceit to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel on behalf of both simply fails the test of realities. Hamas, for its part, is not prepared to negotiate and seeks a long-term hudna or ceasefire, not a two-state solution. Each and any move Israel might make with one of the two is anathema in the eyes of the other.

The cumulative Palestinian failure at state-building since 1993 weighs heavily upon the prospects for progress toward a viable two-state solution. So does the Israeli political system. Yet in the long term, we Israelis have no alternative but to seek out and exploit every strategic opportunity for ending the occupation, rolling back the West Bank settlements and consolidating Israel as a Jewish and democratic state–regardless of what happens politically in the West Bank and Gaza.