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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - October 27, 2009

Alpher answers questions about the status of the Labor Party and the makeup of the Israeli governing coalition.

Q. The latest Yediot Aharonot opinion poll shows Labor with just seven mandates. What does this mean for the Israeli peace camp and the future of the current coalition?

A. Labor has virtually collapsed in the polls following MK Daniel Ben-Simon's resignation from the job of party whip in the Knesset and allegations by the state controller that party leader Ehud Barak, who serves as minister of defense in the Netanyahu government, was responsible for glaring financial waste in his trips abroad.

In the Israeli reality, the Ben-Simon resignation is the more significant event, insofar as it heralds the virtual disintegration of Labor's 13 MK Knesset contingent into no fewer than five mini-factions. Moreover, if Ben-Simon follows through on his promise to "draw additional conclusions" from his disillusionment with Barak in the weeks ahead, the most dissident of those factions will have the necessary five MKs (at least one-third of the Knesset contingent is required by law) to break off from the Labor party and either form a separate party or join another, existing one, meaning either Meretz or Kadima.

Meretz, incidentally, benefited in the latest poll from Labor's collapse and gained three mandates in "virtual" elections. But in the current Knesset reality, wherein Barak with his 13 mandates has little moderating effect on government policies, Labor's potential decline and a small increase in the size of the parliamentary opposition by the addition of five ex-Laborites to Kadima and Meretz might have little effect. PM Binyamin Netanyahu needs Barak as defense minister not because of Barak's legislative or electoral strengths but as a signal to the West and the moderate Arab world that his government will be both tough on Iran and forthcoming with the Palestinians. Even were Barak to remain the only Laborite, Netanyahu might keep him on, much as PM Menachem Begin coopted Moshe Dayan away from Labor in 1977 to serve as foreign minister and provide greater legitimacy for Israel's first Likud government.

But Dayan brought peace with Egypt, whereas Barak does not look like a candidate to bring peace with anyone. His stewardship of Labor has to be seen as part of an historic process of decline for the party that created the modern state of Israel 61 years ago. Labor's troubles are also undoubtedly part of a more generalized decline of the Zionist political left in favor of a realignment of politics between center-left (Kadima) and center-right (Likud). Still, in electoral terms, Barak is probably the most inept of Labor's recent leaders.

If Labor's disintegration continues, but also if and when the peace process and Israeli-American relations go sour, it will be interesting to see whether Livni is able to consolidate the parliamentary opposition with new blood from Labor and possibly Meretz and seriously challenge the Likud.

Q. Apropos Labor's seeming lack of influence in this government, how important is the presence of the dovish Dan Meridor in PM Netanyahu's "cabinet of seven" that makes the key decisions?

A. Meridor, like Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, is a died-in-the-wool Revisionist Likudnik who saw the light a few years ago and recognized the necessity of a two-state solution for Israel's survival as a Jewish state. Like Olmert and Livni, he left the Likud and formed a new centrist party. Unlike them, his party failed and he left politics for a while. His agreement to return to the Likud list in Knesset elections earlier this year ostensibly reflected his belief that Netanyahu, of whom he was extremely critical ten years ago, had matured and deserved a second chance.

But Netanyahu rewarded Meridor with a set of fairly empty and marginal ministerial titles that easily get lost in the shuffle of a huge government comprising more than 30 ministers and deputy ministers (that's one-fourth of the Knesset!). Meridor's only real chance to influence the course of events is as one of six ministers who, together with Netanyahu, make the heavy decisions. In this body, Meridor and Barak constitute the "left" with the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Yaalon, Eli Yishai and Beni Begin constituting the "right".

But if Barak, with his extreme skepticism regarding the chances for a deal with the Palestinians and his endless and by now pathetic delays in removing outposts (both reasons cited by Ben-Simon for abandoning the Barak camp within Labor), can hardly qualify any more as "left", neither, it emerges, can Meridor. In an in-depth interview to Haaretz this past weekend, Meridor, who still recalls when he supported Menachem Begin's autonomy proposal to grant Israeli citizenship to any Palestinian demanding it, emerges as a transitional figure who has not really made the transition.

He still wants to hold onto "united Jerusalem" and leave the IDF in the West Bank even after settlements are removed and a Palestinian state emerges. He opposes "land swaps" to compensate Palestinians for Israeli annexation of settlement blocs. He believes the Palestinian national movement has not yet made the slightest compromise for peace.

No wonder he felt comfortable returning to the Likud fold.

Q. Moving finally to the parliamentary opposition, its leader, Kadima's Tzipi Livni, was cited by former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk last week as having advised the PLO not to accept PM Ehud Olmert's peace offer back in late 2008. Livni denies the allegation. How is this relevant to current peace efforts?

A. Indyk, in Jerusalem for the President's Conference, acknowledged that his knowledge of Livni's position was second-hand, drawn from Palestinians who claim to have heard her admonishment. Livni allegedly issued the warning because Olmert was in trouble with the law and his days as prime minister were numbered. Livni herself denies having spoken behind Olmert's back. Olmert himself, incidentally, has speculated in private conversation that his peace plan was rejected because of the impression created by his legal difficulties.

There are two relevant background factors at play here. First, throughout 2008 Olmert was discussing the broad outlines of a settlement with PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) while Livni and Ahmed Qurei (AbuAla) were designated by Olmert and Abbas respectively to negotiate the details. Indyk's comment, whether true or not, is not the first indication that the two tracks were not well coordinated. At the time, Olmert and Livni were not on good terms; nor were Abbas and Qurei. Livni and Qurei had been appointed largely in order to maintain harmony within Kadima and Fateh, their respective ruling parties. The lesson here is that when responsibility for managing a peace process is divided, problems emerge. And when the division of labor reflects political rather than pragmatic reasons, the results can be bad for peace.

Second, Abbas has already explained, in a Washington Post interview last June, why he turned down Olmert's offer: "The gaps [between that offer and Abbas' demands] were wide." Abbas could easily have stated that it was Olmert's legal status that deterred him, but didn't. Instead, Abbas put on the record that Olmert's offer--by far the most generous yet made by an Israeli leader--did not come close enough to Palestinian demands to warrant proceeding.

According to media statements by Abbas, Olmert and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat, in late 2008 Olmert offered Abbas around 93.6 percent of the West Bank and another 5.8 percent in land swaps (in exchange for Israeli settlement blocs) and a safe-passage corridor linking Gaza and the West Bank. The Holy Basin of Jerusalem would be devoid of sovereignty and would be administered by a five nation consortium comprising Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. Regarding refugees, Olmert offered to repatriate a small number as a humanitarian gesture. The only issue about which the various versions differ is on the right of return: Abbas says Olmert accepted it in principle; Olmert says he did not.

Livni states that she opposed Olmert's offer because it allowed for a few thousand refugees to return (she opposes any return at all) and placed Jerusalem's OldCity under the control of an international force. But she only went public with her criticism after Olmert's own offer was made public.

Abbas' rejection of Olmert's offer is seen by some as a new stumbling block on the road to Israeli-Palestinian peace: under current circumstances, it is hard to imagine another Israeli leader exceeding Olmert's generosity. Then again, under current circumstances there is no peace process at all. Olmert and Livni, for all their faults and their squabbling, made a laudable effort that may well have registered additional progress had Olmert been able to remain in office.