Perhaps the most poignant headline we saw regarding last week’s parliamentary elections in Israel ran over a Reuters story: “Israel faces gridlock, peace prospects dim.”
Israel has a parliamentary system, meaning a prospective prime minister must put together a majority coalition in the 120-member Knesset, or Parliament.
Current foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s party, Kadima, originally formed by former prime minister Ariel Sharon and deemed “centrist” by most observers, won 28 seats in preliminary tabulations. The “rightist” party Likud, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, garnered 27 seats, and the rest of the seats were divided among 10 other parties according to a pie chart in the Jerusalem Post.
Perhaps the most significant result was that the newly formed “rightist” party, Israel Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, won 15 Knesset seats.
The Jerusalem Post’s story also noted that Jerusalem had gone largely for Likud and other right-leaning parties, while Kadima took Tel Aviv, with 34 percent to Likud’s 19 percent.
Following official certification Feb. 18, Israeli President Shimon Peres is supposed to designate either Netanyahu or Livni to form a coalition government. There is a slight chance the two parties will come together to form a possibly shaky “unity” government. But it seems more likely that Netanyahu will form a right-leaning coalition government.
Whatever happens, despite pro forma appeals from the European Union and other quarters, urging Israel to stay on a path to peace that contemplates a two-state solution, it is likely the most realistic hope for at least a cessation of violence is to extend the fragile truce between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Progress toward having a formal Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state is likely to be measured in decades rather than months or even years.
Although the Obama administration has said it would like to see a two-state solution and has sent former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell to the area as a facilitator, it wisely has not commented on whether it would rather see Likud or Kadima lead the next Israeli government. Conventional wisdom may hold that if the U.S. leans hard enough it could pressure Israel into a formal peace agreement, but that seems unlikely.
This election has exposed what everybody knew were deep divisions within Israel on how to handle the Palestinian issue going forward. The minimal requirement for even semiformal negotiations to begin again is probably a complete cessation of rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza and some kind of rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah, the party that nominally controls the West Bank.
A modest approach is probably the best U.S. stance. Israel and Palestine may become weary of conflict and move toward real peace sooner than anybody thinks, or it may take much longer. For the U.S. to try to accelerate the process, as most U.S. presidents have tried without success to do recently, would likely be fruitless. If Israelis and Palestinians agree between themselves and want an agreement blessed in Washington, fine. But trying to jump-start the process is likely to be an exercise in frustration.
Meantime, perhaps the best we can do is to hope that whatever coalition emerges in Israel will be able to maintain a truce for a while.