Israel's Red Lines

The February 10, 2009 election results in Israel, while complicated and unresolved, are also revealing.  Those citizens who usually vote with left wing parties shifted their vote to the center. Those who normally vote with centrist parties shifted their vote to the right.  As of this writing, it looks like a national unity government will emerge, with a centrist-right emphasis. It depends, however, on whether Likud Chairman and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be given the task of forming Israel’s next government.  The invitation must come from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who will make his decision after the final election results are published on February 18, 2009. 

Though current Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni narrowly won the election as head of the Kadima party, it is expected that she will not be able to secure enough coalition partners to form a stable government.  But, Livni’s influence, as well as that of Avigdor Lieberman, Chairman of the Israel Beitenu party, will be felt in the halls of power even if Netanyahu becomes the next leader of the country.

What can be concluded from this election is that Israeli society is very much divided, with a wide spectrum of diverse opinions expressed towards: (1) solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; (2) guaranteeing security and stability for Israeli citizens; and, (3) managing the balancing act of diplomacy and defense, while at the same time, trying to pacify the international community. 

European leaders have increased their influence in this region, but the U.S. is still the leader of the free world, and American President Barack Obama wants to exert increasing pressure on the Jewish State to make peace with its Arab neighbors.  All eyes are on the Middle East these days, and some wonder just how far Israel will go to satisfy the global hunger to see calm in this region.

During the reign of current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, reports surfaced that, despite a denial on the part of Livni, negotiations were being carried out on the status of Jerusalem between Israel and the Palestinians.  In one of Olmert’s final interviews with the Israeli media, he admitted that Israel was prepared to: (1) withdraw from most of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria); (2) relinquish East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian control; and, (3) put East Jerusalem holy sites under international jurisdiction. During the previous reign of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel took a similar position. 

Today, most of Israel’s left wing parties support a two-state solution – a state of Israel and a state of Palestine -- and have agreed on a withdrawal to the 1967 borders; the removal of settlement towns; and the division of Jerusalem.  For Israel’s most liberal citizens there is one red line that can’t be crossed; that is, allowing thousands of Palestinian “refugees” to settle in Israel. This would threaten the demographics of the Jewish State.
The more conservative side of Israeli society strongly identifies with stewardship of the land. This is shared by Israel’s settlers, along with those citizens who still believe that Israel must maintain a presence in the biblical heartland, Judea and Samaria. 

MK Aryeh Eldad, head of the right-wing National Union party, says Netanyahu voted with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza.  “Any area that Israel gives, and uproots settlements, and withdraws from, and gives to the Arabs, becomes automatically a terror base. What happened in Gaza will happen in Judea and Samaria. If Netanyahu has learned a lesson -- and according to his declaration he speaks very nice though I’m not sure his style is as strong as his tongue -- he needs ideological support within his government. I hope that the National Union (party) will be part of a national coalition with Netanyahu as the prime minister. We will contribute the vertebrae, the steel spine to his coalition that will help him not to bend over to the pressures that are expected and that are on the way.”

National Union and other right wing parties have their red lines. They have agreed to try and block any attempt on the part of a future Israeli government to remove citizens from West Bank settlement communities. They are also determined not to allow Jerusalem to be divided, and want Israel to maintain control over the holy sites. For them, a two-state solution in not a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As this 2009 election has proved, many Israelis are tired of having to make “painful concessions” to the Palestinians without receiving anything in return.  For most Jewish citizens, maintaining quiet on Israel’s southern border would be a good starting point.

But, since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Israel has experienced no lasting peace.  Suicide bombings, rocket wars, the strengthening of Hezbollah and Hamas by Iran and Syria, have all contributed to more deaths and less security for Israeli citizens. Expressing their frustration, Jews showed strong support at the polls for Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party.

While many international observers think Lieberman is a conservative based on his discontent with the Israeli Arab population, those living in Israel understand him to be more liberal.  His platform calls for secular policies in regard to civil marriages, as well as simplifying the conversion process to Judaism. In addition, he seems to support the tenants of a Palestinian state. However, he does not want to break up settlement communities. Rather, he is calling for land swaps with the Arabs -- a controversial policy that most Israelis don’t think will work.

Lieberman’s growing popularity is based on his demand to see a greater commitment on the part of Israel’s Arab citizens towards the Jewish State, especially from Arab Knesset members. Lieberman is calling for a Citizenship Law that would require the population to learn Israel’s national anthem (Hatikvah), and sign a declaration of loyalty to the state.

Israeli Jews are angry that the country’s Arab population continues to voice its vocal opposition, sometimes staging riots when Israel tries to defend itself in battles against terrorist groups. 

Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s recent war in Gaza, proved to unite 90% of Jewish citizens, bringing to the forefront a sense of patriotism and national pride in the IDF’s (Israel’s Defense Forces) ability to fight its enemies. It also brought forth greater opposition from Israeli Arabs who aligned themselves with the Palestinian cause.  Lieberman presents a clear but controversial set of demands that would display Israel’s strength in the face of such opposition in the future. 

When talking to Israeli Jews on the street, they claim that the only way to deal with Fatah in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza, and their Arab neighbors throughout the Middle East is to show military might, in contrast to failed diplomatic efforts that seem to have weakened Israel’s resolve. Many now see the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a failed policy that didn’t contribute to Israel gaining any points of influence or favor with the international community.  Instead, Hamas gained power, and turned settlement synagogues and hot houses into terrorist bases – not an encouraging way to make peace with Israel.

Yet, the problem with Israeli society is that there is no real unity around core issues.  While the “left” still holds firm to the concept of land-for-peace, the “right” wants peace-for-peace or land-for-land. 

International analysts refer to the “peace camp” or the “anti-peace” camp when talking about Israeli politics. Others speak of “appeasement” when Israel concedes to international pressure.  In Israeli society, the understanding is that everyone wants peace, but not everyone has the same approach towards getting there.

The one issue that a great majority of Israelis do agree upon is the existential threat of Iran. Throughout the whole political spectrum, from army generals to members of the Knesset, almost every leader has expressed the fact that Israel will not allow Iran to “go nuclear.” In fact, Israel is preparing for a military strike against Iran if American diplomacy fails, whether Israel has to go it alone, or whether it will have the help of Western nations. 

This will be one of the main focuses of a national unity government. It could bring the left, center, and right wing parties together in one accord. It could bring liberals and conservatives together.  It could even put Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs on the same page.  

In the long run, it is Iran that is Israel’s red line.  Israel must prepare itself to defend its citizens against the aggressions of an increasingly hostile Persian Empire which is intent on the destruction of the Jewish State; and, which holds as its key goal, regional domination.

Only through uniting together all sectors of Israeli society, will citizens be able to take the necessary steps to defend the state; not only from Iranian tyranny, but also from future battles it faces in Gaza, Lebanon, and possibly Syria.   This will mean taking risks and preparing the home front for a missile war unlike anything Israel has ever seen before. 

The results of the 2009 general election, leading to the final composition of Israel’s next coalition government, may be one of the most politically significant moments in Israel’s history. It could very well determine the strength and stability of the Jewish nation for years to come.

C Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East and the international community.