Following the victory of Tzipi Livni in the Kadima party primary, what do you expect from her efforts to form a new governing coalition?
Presumably Livni will try to reestablish more or less the same as the outgoing coalition—the Kadima, Labor, and Shas parties. I do not think she will have much difficulty with Labor, other than Ehud Barak’s discomfort with being her defense minister; he said some uncomplimentary things about her during the primary.
Livni’s big problem will be with the conservative Shas Party, which will take this opportunity to squeeze her for more money for religious schools and benefits for large families. This is a national scandal, which continues to this day. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, while he was Minister of Finance a few years ago, finally managed to cut back these payments per child but now Shas is pressing to restore them. The price Shas exacted from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was his declaration that we would not negotiate with the Palestinians about Jerusalem. Giving in to such demands goes very much against Livni’s instincts, but it is the classic way of putting together a coalition. Livni only entered politics about ten years ago and this will be her first test; she comes to this situation with less experience than Olmert in this kind of political wheeling and dealing. It is also very important to watch what Olmert himself does in the background. If Livni fails to form a coalition, Olmert will remain as caretaker prime minister until elections are held, which could be another 6 months.
Don’t forget Livni can bring in the pro-peace party Meretz instead of Shas and reach some arrangement with the ten members of Knesset who represent Arab parties. That would be a tenuous coalition, but one that would be much more peace-oriented.
If Livni succeeds in forming a new coalition, will she serve out what would have been the rest of Olmert’s term as prime minister?
In theory, yes, she could serve another two years. But judging by the fate of previous coalitions, if she reaches some kind of achievement in negotiations this would precipitate new elections. Let us remember that the Palestinian issue, which she is as dedicated to as Olmert was, has brought down every single Israeli governing coalition for the last twenty years. Olmert’s resignation actually was an exception, a coalition brought down by the prime minister’s corruption rather than by the Palestinian issue. One could hardly say that’s a refreshing change but at least it is different from the pattern we have seen.
What are prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at this point?
If Livni forms a coalition, it is not clear what she wants to do with a government. Does she want to pick up where we left off with the peace process with the Palestinians, for example? She is the chief negotiator. Or does she really want just to stabilize her prime ministerial image in the eyes of the Israeli public in the hopes that this will help her win an election? Maybe she wants to do both of these things and she is going to be playing it by ear. She has a lot of integrity on her side and a very good image in the public eye but not a lot of experience at this kind of political backroom dealing with the likes of Shas.
Another question is Syria. Livni has been rather cool to those talks and much more dedicated to the talks with Palestinians. Olmert also was cool to talks with Syria until he listened to his security community, who told him that peace with Syria is much more doable and could help to push Iran out of the region and reduce support for militant Islamist organizations. It’s very possible that Livni as foreign minister didn’t hear all the briefings that Olmert did. In Israeli political culture, the foreign ministry is a weak partner at best in national security decision-making, which is done by the prime minister and the defense minister, who are sometimes the same person. So, now Livni is going to step into those shoes.
Has it typically been progress or failure in negotiations with Palestinians that has necessitated Israeli elections?
I hesitate to generalize about the last twenty years because we are going all the way back to the time of Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir, but generally it has been progress—or at least a controversial decision made by the prime minister that was not supported by his entire government or even all of his own party. Livni might have the same problem. Kadima is made up of people who moved from Likud and others who moved from Labor, who have divergent views on the Palestinian and Syrian issues. In this sense, Livni’s first challenge really is to shore up support within her own party and to make sure that most or all of those twenty-eight other Knesset members are behind her. This is not so simple. There were four camps going into the Kadima primary, and rivals such as Shaul Mofaz can command the allegiance of several members of Knesset.
What will be the fate of the initiative former Prime Minister Olmert introduced recently to offer compensation to Israeli settlers who agree to leave the West Bank?
Livni opposed this initiative in cabinet discussions, seeing it as another unilateral Israeli step. She argued that the initiative would say to the Palestinians that we are unilaterally declaring that the fence is the border, but that hasn’t been agreed yet. Maybe the fence can be moved. So do you offer compensation to the twenty thousand residents of Ariel, for example, which might or might not end up in Palestinian territory? I think Olmert’s initiative was good because in my opinion an agreement that really draws a map and finalizes it and begins to move people out is not around the corner. While imperfect and unilateral, the initiative is a move in the right direction. There are indications that as many as 20 percent of the 60,000-70,000 settlers who live beyond the planned path of the fence would be prepared to take the money and move, which could create a very interesting dynamic.
While Israelis undergo this process, there is also turmoil in the Palestinian leadership. Do you have any observations on that situation?
Well, the most important dilemma they face is the Fatah-Hamas West Bank—Gaza split. Everything else is a function of that. If there is a controversy over whether President Abbas’s term is over this coming January or a year later, it is because Hamas objects to the Fatah positions. Former President Arafat and the Palestinian Legislative Council elected in 1996 served far beyond their mandated terms. It is to the credit of the Palestinians that they want to be constitutional about this, but it’s hard to do that when Hamas has taken over Gaza by force and pushed Fatah out and clearly wants to end Abbas’s termsooner rather than later. If Abbas ends up holding the election in January 2009, it will also affect negotiations with Israel. He will have to decide whether it would be in his interest to have some sort of declaration of principles in writing, or whether such an agreement might be unpopular with Palestinians and it would be better to say “I am still negotiating.”
Yossi Alpher was an adviser to former prime minister Ehud Barak and is co-editor of the e-magazine Bitterlemons
. Michele Dunne conducted this interview.