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Fallout from Israeli elections: peace at last?

Change might just be afoot in the Middle East, following Israeli elections and comments by new US Secretary of State John Kerry. Analyst Jack Georgieff asks if peace is on the way — or will it be more of the same.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed up Tzipi Livni, chair of the small Hatnuah Party, as chief negotiator with the Palestinians on 19 February, following elections earlier this year. US Secretary of State John Kerry is making Middle East peace a priority on his first trip abroad. And with a new Israeli coalition government likely by the end of March, peace negotiations could be just around the corner!

Or not.

Yes, Netanyahu is expected to form a broad centrist coalition. But he needs to stare down forces within his own party. The policy mismatch with Yesh Atid (likely to be the largest coalition partner at 19 seats) means no meaningful progress on peace talks in the short term.

But let’s begin with Netanyahu’s own Likud-Beitanyu ticket, which collapsed from 42 seats to 31. This combined ticket, between former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and Netanyahu’s Likud, was supposed to exceed their 2009 tally but fell short, leaving Netanyahu in a precarious situation within his own party.

Moreover, the list selection process —  where party members vote for who will go on the national list at the election  — and the merging with Lieberman’s party has left Netanyahu with a more hawkish caucus.

At number #14 on the list is Moshe Feiglin, who once told a reporter that “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers”.

Further up at number #5 is Danny Danon, who wants Israel to unilaterally annex all the Jewish-occupied and uninhabited land in the West Bank. Such a forceful stance is obviously unacceptable to the Palestinians, and viewed as unnecessarily inflammatory by the international community.

Alongside this more Right-tilting caucus, Netanyahu will no doubt need to face the music over a collapse in the Likud-Beiteinu vote. It leaves his position as chairman of Likud and Prime Minister more precarious than ever, making any restart of negotiations with the Palestinians look even more remote.

Netanyahu’s own problems aside, a closer examination of Likud-Beitanyu’s coalition partner, Yesh Atid, reveals that it is hardly more conducive to a serious breakthrough with Israel’s Palestinian neighbours. Although Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid campaigned partially on the resumption of talks, the bulk of his campaign focused on domestic issues, including the stagnant wages affecting middle-class Israelis and the issue of Orthodox Jews escaping compulsory military service.

Lapid paid lip service to the issue of peace talks, endorsing the idea of a two state solution but simultaneously stating that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel. It’s an offer the Palestinians will not take with any seriousness.

The electorate itself is more interested in stagnant wages and the rising cost of living, which even the Labor opposition put at the centre of its campaign. Only Livni’s Hatnuah party gave the peace talks serious air time as a campaign issue. Despite her new role as chief negotiator, her party still only won six seats. Her clout within the coalition will be much less than she and her supporters expect. It demonstrates how far down the list the peace process has fallen for most Israelis.

*Jack Georgieff is the 2013 Thawley Research Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This article was first published at The Interpreter.

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