Bibi Netanyahu’s fig leaf

2009-04-02 00:00

“I am not afraid of Bibi [Netanyahu]. I will not be anybody’s fig leaf,” said Ehud Barak, leader of Israel’s Labour Party, defending his decision to join the hard-right coalition government being formed by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. But off in the distance there was a curious whirring noise.

The sound was identified by Ophir Pines-Paz, a prominent Knesset member who is on the left of the Labour Party. “Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett (all former Labour prime ministers) are turning over in their graves,” Pines-Paz declared. In fact, they are spinning at high speed, for Barak has abandoned Labour’s traditional values in order to save its electoral prospects.

The coalition he is joining is committed to expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and is led by a man who rejects the very idea of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu spent his first term as prime minister (1996-99) sabotaging the Oslo accords of 1993, which envisaged Palestinian statehood. As a result, the “peace process” had mostly run out of steam by the time he left office.

Barak’s other partners in the coalition will include the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, a Romanian immigrant who wants to demand oaths of loyalty to the “Jewish state” from Israeli Arabs, and strip those who refuse of their Israeli citizenship. So why did Barak do it? The answer is simply: power. Not just personal power, although he will get the defence ministry himself and four other cabinet seats for Labour — not a bad result when Labour only holds 13 seats in the Knesset. His main goal is to keep Labour in the domestic political game, because it is at risk of losing out permanently.

Labour dominated Israeli politics for three decades after independence, and continued to be one of the two big parties for another 20 years after that. But in the last election it dropped to fourth place, and if it refused to join the government it wouldn’t even be the official opposition party. Kadima, a centrist party, would fill that role, leaving Labour to get lost in the political undergrowth.

Barak was seeking some way to avoid that fate, and his opportunity arose because Netanyahu was looking for a fig leaf. While the core of the coalition that Netanyahu has built consists of “national” (i.e. right-wing) parties that support the settlements and reject a Palestinian state, some seemingly more reasonable coalition member would soften his government’s image in the United States. It’s all about the optics of dealing with Barack Obama.

From an international perspective, it hardly matters whether Barak sells out or not, because the “peace process” is long dead. The fiction that it is still alive is occasionally useful to Western and/or Arab governments, and the international media are as gullible as ever, but no serious person in Israel or among the Palestinians believes that this generation will see a “two-state solution”, with Israeli and Palestinian states dividing the land between the Jordan River and the sea along the pre-1967 frontiers of Israel.

Netanyahu doesn’t really even need Barak as a fig leaf, because he doesn’t have to lift a finger to prevent the two-state solution. He can just point out that there is no united Palestinian authority to negotiate with (and nobody will bring up the fact that Israel worked very hard to create the current split among the Palestinians by fostering the growth of Hamas).

The Obama administration in the U.S. is unlikely to put serious pressure on Netanyahu, because they must surely also know that the “peace process” is dead. It is politically impossible for Obama to admit publicly that the whole thing is pointless and just walk away from the problem; he has to pretend to be engaged. But is he going to waste a lot of valuable political capital on it? One hopes not.

If you assume (as Barak almost certainly does) that all the above is true, then his decision to enter Netanyahu’s coalition is perfectly rational. None of the principles he is sacrificing stood the slightest chance of being turned into policy anyway, so why not do what needs to be done to save the Labour Party? Yes, you’ll get your hands dirty, but if you wanted clean hands, what are you doing in politics?

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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