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Implications of the Israeli Election for George Mitchell’s work

His second day in office, President Obama appointed former senator George Mitchell as the American special envoy to the Middle East, indicating he wanted to make the region a top priority on his foreign agenda. But a perceivable shift to the right in Tuesday’s election results in Israel may hinder Obama’s hopes for a swift peace between Israel and Palestine, Griff Witte and Glenn Kessler report in The Washington Post. Aaron David Miller, former U.S. peace negotiator, puts it this way:

This is like hanging a “closed for the season” sign on any peacemaking for the next year or so.

Kessler and Witte write that although the results themselves remain incomplete, the anticipation that an Israeli government “uninterested in peace talks” will emerge to form a governing coalition is strong. The gains of the ultra-nationalist party Beiteinu and Israel’s right-wing Likud party don’t seem to bode well for Obama’s immediate agenda.

Also, the lack of a clear victor in the elections stifles the hope for future peace moves in an already tricky atmosphere:

In many ways, the deep split in the Israeli electorate mirrors the split within the Palestinian government, between the Fatah party that controls the West Bank and the Hamas organization that controls the Gaza Strip. Fatah favors a negotiated settlement with Israel; Hamas rejects Israel’s existence. Israeli and Palestinian societies are so divided, with such politically weak leaders, that few believe either the Israelis or the Palestinians can muster the will to reach a deal.

Even if Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party and an advocate for peace negotiations with Palestine, can piece together a coalition in the coming weeks, she’ll most likely be handicapped by her coalition partners. Her narrow victory over Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, does not change the fact that even a “broad unity government” would probably impede decisive peace moves but easily reach a consensus on military strikes, such as the Israeli invasion of Gaza in recent weeks.

The Obama administration faces future relations with Livni, who guided Israel’s negotiations throughout last year’s Annapolis talks and is “prefer[able]” to Netanyahu, who refuses to divide Jerusalem and is wary of giving up the West Bank to Palestinian negotiators. Still, he could be “susceptible to U.S. pressure”:

Netanyahu has deep connections to the United States, and few in Israel expect him to do anything that would jeopardize American support. With U.S. mediation, Netanyahu agreed during his tenure as prime minister to a peace deal under which Palestinians received partial control over the West Bank city of Hebron.

–Cosette Wong, Trinity ’10

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  1. Bruce Lawrence
    February 15, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    While I would like to believe that Netanyahu would not take a hard line on peace prospects, due to fear
    of disappointing and/or alienating the Obama administration, I’ve learned to expect to be disappointed by any prospect that he will change colors, and actually accept the compromises that a genuine Arab-Israeli peace accord would entail.

    Livni is hard to read, especially since her track record is so much briefer than Netanyahu’s, but I have to hope that she would bend toward Hilary, who considers herself to be on the inside track with all women politicians, not least this rising star
    in Israeli national politics, and Hilary, in turn, would have to advocate the general line that Mitchell, working on President Obama’s behalf, would advocate.

    Half full or half empty? It’s too early to tell, but I’ll be an optimist and continue to hope that the glass is half full for the much needed, and too oft delayed, prospect of a durable, and just, Arab-Israeli peace during the next 8 years.

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