The New Super-Majority Coalition Government in Israel
by Warren Clark, Executive Director
In a bold political move on May 7 Prime Minister Netanyahu postponed parliamentary elections expected for this September and assembled a new, super-majority coalition government that controls 94 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The governing coalition now includes the Kadima party, the largest party in the Knesset; if this coalition holds, new elections will not be needed for eighteen months.
While this change was designed primarily to address a number of domestic political reform issues, this broad political mandate should give the prime minister the political ability to move decisively - should he chose to do so - towards ending the conflict with the Palestinians and improving the lives of those now living under occupation. It remains to be seen whether the time is ripe yet to move towards a real accommodation.
Is The Time Ripe for Agreement?
It has been argued since he regained power in 2009 that the Prime Minister has been politically constrained from moving towards an agreement by the small parties in his coalition that held the balance of power. Some of them opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and supported the expansion of the Israeli population into the West Bank settlements. With such a broad coalition, the Prime Minister now can lose their support and still remain in power. Indeed, one of the reasons cited for forming the supermajority coalition is to put through electoral reforms in coming months that would reduce or eliminate their influence.
The new coalition partner, Kadima, supports the idea of ending the occupation and negotiating an agreement to create a Palestinian state. Its leader Shaul Mofaz has been quoted saying, “The threat that Israel will become a bi-national state is far more serious than the Iranian nuclear issue.”
It is not hard to make the case that the occupation is not in Israel’s interests. Continued Israeli population growth in the West Bank - now over 300,000 spread out in a sea of 2.4 million Palestinians, including 73,000 east of the separation barrier on the “Palestinian side” - means that the occupation is increasingly hard to end. Yet population trends mean that Israeli Jews would soon be a minority in a single political entity from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. This would be the end of Israel as a Jewish majority state, an unthinkable outcome for most Israelis. The only responsible alternative is to end the occupation and create a separate Palestinian state living in peace and security next to Israel.
While the Iranian and Palestinian issues are not directly linked, the Financial Times among others editorialized recently that resolution of the Palestinian conflict “would do much more for Israel’s security than bombing Iran”.
Many obstacles remain to reaching any agreement. Both sides have rejectionists not interested in peace. The Palestinian Authority cooperates with Israel and the United States in the West Bank on security and seeks a negotiated settlement, but the charter of Hamas that rules Gaza rejects the right of Israel to exist. The charter of Netanyahu’s Likud Party rejects the idea of a Palestinian state between the sea and the river.
However, charters can be “interpreted”. In 2009 the Prime Minister agreed in principle to the creation of a limited Palestinian state, but it has been clear that the Iranian problem remains far more urgent to him than the Palestinian issue.
In moving to resolve the Palestinian issue, any Israeli prime minister will need to deal with the considerable up front political costs of stopping and perhaps reversing the settler movement, whether or not their parties are in his coalition.
It is hard to bring about successful negotiations between two parties with such asymmetrical power as Israelis and Palestinians. Israel is vastly more powerful that the Palestinians in almost every measurable way – militarily, economically and militarily. A more powerful party may not believe it needs to concede enough in negotiations to meet the minimum requirements of the weaker party.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for “responsible” negotiations with Palestinians, there is no indication he believes there is a need anytime soon to agree to minimum Palestinian requirements for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state – invariably defined to include 22% of the territory of the former British mandate of Palestine (the 1967 lines with mutual adjustments) and with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. Rather, he continues to push vigorously in the opposite direction – to strengthen the occupation by expanding settlement construction and to surround Jerusalem with settlements that cut it off from the West Bank.
There are often inflated expectations of what the U.S. can do. The president can make suggestions, but the U.S. cannot force Israel to make a major policy change. In the end Israel and no one else will decide what it will do about reaching agreements with Palestinians and will decide only when it feels the time is ripe.
Legitimate Security Concerns
One can never discount Israel’s genuine security concerns that inhibit political risk taking. Israelis fear the threat of a nuclear Iran, as well as hostile non-state actors on its northern and southern borders. Modern rockets and missiles mean that borders no longer provide the “strategic depth” they once did. The Israeli Defense Forces estimate that 60,000 rockets now face Israel from Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon. There is political instability and insurrection in Israel’s neighborhood, including political change in Egypt that sometimes questions the peace treaty with Israel.
At the same time Israel has by far the most powerful military and security forces in the region, including atomic weapons, and almost unlimited security and political support from the U.S. This includes a qualitative military superiority agreement, in which the U.S. in effect agrees to insure that Israel will be militarily superior on its own to any country or combination of counties in the Middle East.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Anything other than the two state solution seems clearly worse for all parties, including Israel. Continuation of the status quo would be irresponsible and a terrible historical mistake. It would reinforce the traditional Hamas view that the only way to achieve Palestinian self-determination and dignity is through confrontation and violence.
Continuing the status quo also threatens to institutionalize the occupation and inequality, condemning both peoples to live as strangers or worse in separate and unequal worlds. Israel will never accept a single, democratic state from the sea to the river and Palestinians will not accept lack of enfranchisement or discrimination in civil and human rights under Israeli hegemony.
Meanwhile, there are many immediate concerns – including human rights issues, inequality under occupation, residency restrictions, family unification laws and restrictions on Palestinian development, especially in Area C.
So we can…
We can try to influence the political culture to be made more receptive to reconciliation in a number of ways.
1) Non-violence. The moral authority than comes from non-lethal action and non-violent protest must be axiomatic. Rubber bullets and throwing stones not only may kill people but assuredly hurt the moral cause their users are trying to defend.
2) Strengthen civil society. Civil society organizations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are doing important work, often with foreign support. In March I met with many civil society groups, including al-Haq in Ramallah; Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem; and thanks to EAPPI with COMET Mid East, an Israeli and international group working to bring solar power to poor rural Palestinian communities in the parched South Hebron Hills.
Building up civil society organizations aimed at stronger human rights, civil rights, humanitarian relief, positive investment, economic and human development, and better governing capacity in the West Bank are manifestly in the interests of Israel and Palestinians and in the security interests of all the U.S. It is certainly not in Israel’s interest to have an impoverished state, much less a failed state, on its borders. Relief, development, capacity building and improved governance all help people on the ground and help change the political climate while supporting the values and interests of all.
3) Educate, witness and advocate. We need to do what we can to both help improve people’s lives right now, help change the political culture, and strengthen the ground for reconciliation. That means educating our friends and ourselves; traveling to the area when we can to witness what is going on; and advocating in support of development and civil society programs with our elected political representatives and with our neighbors of all faiths.
One way you can advocate is by attending the CMEP Advocacy Conference in Washington, DC June 18-19. This conference provides an excellent opportunity to learn more, collaborate with others, and advocate for peace.
As the peace process ebbs and flows, your consistent voice is vitally important. Your emails to and visits with your representatives will provide a message of peace and security for all the peoples of the Holy Land.
From the Field
by Rev. Doris Warrell, Field Director
Local congregations and ecumenical faith-based groups can be and are effective advocates for peace. Already knowing each other and having basic structure local congregations and ecumenical faith-based groups can get busy doing the work of peacemaking. The way to move from “can be” to “are” effective advocates for peace is to get busy making peace.
If there isn’t a missions group concerned with improving the lives of Israelis and Palestinians by helping to bring the violence of the conflict to an end, then personally ask a few people if they would join you in a conversation about helping to end the conflict. When even two or three people are gathered together to do what Jesus call us to do, then he is present with us in our work. Ask some people over for dinner and start the conversation.
What could you do together?
First, every time you meet, pray for the people of the Holy Land: Palestinian and Israeli; Jew, Christian and Muslim; and, those who are armed and those who are unarmed. CMEP has a number of spiritual resources available to you on our website.
Second, learn more about the situation. Read CMEP’s Bulletin. Watch a video, like Home Front. These accessible materials will help you learn what’s happening and get to know who is being affected.
Third, talk about what concerns members of the group and what the group can do together at that meeting or in the next week to support peace. This is a very important step. Try not to get tangled in political discussions over aspects which you have no role or point of engagement. Peacemakers are not the same as political pundits. If you have internet access everyone can sign-on to the latest CMEP action and invite their friends to do the same. At the next Sunday’s coffee hour have members of the group staff a table and ask other members of the church to sign-on too. Send a letter about your concerns to your Representative or one of your Senators and ask them to support peace.
Fourth, discuss if the members of the group felt the meeting was positive and why. Is there something more the group wants to do? Are there others who may be interested in working for peace? Who will invite them to the next event? Decide when you want to get together again and leave with one member committed to making that happen.
Once a group has had 3-5 meetings, so people know each other better and have a shared understanding of the conflict, a future gathering could include:
- Meeting with a Representative or one of your Senators about your concerns and what you want your federal legislator to do.
- Attending a local town hall where candidates for federal office are answering questions and asking them about their viewpoint on peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians.
- Inviting a local speaker to talk with the group and inviting the entire congregation to attend as well.
In a nutshell, this is a CMEP Partner. Local folks working together as part of a vital and expanding national effort by Christians to advocate for balanced and effective positions by U.S. policymakers that support peace in the Holy Land. More information on CMEP’s Partner program can be found on CMEP’s website.
If you are doing this work or have questions about making this happen, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to talk with you about ideas and possibilities, and, as possible, put you in contact with a CMEP Coordinator in your area.
Any member of a local CMEP Partner may attend the 2012 Advocacy Conference at the special rate of $135. If you are a member of a CMEP Partner or would like to your local group to become a CMEP Partner please contact me as well.
Palestinian Funding Becomes Political Football in Election Year
by Keith Swartzendruber, Operations Manger
In an election year, humanitarian funding for Palestinian civilians nearly became a casualty of partisan bickering and grandstanding. Only bold action by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prevented the shut down of numerous humanitarian programs.
In August of 2011, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen put a hold on $147 million in aid appropriated for the Palestinians that had not yet been spent for FY 2011. The move was in response to the Palestinian Authority’s then-impending move for statehood at the UN. This aid included funding for capacity building for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and numerous humanitarian programs for water, access to healthcare, food, and economic development that are dependent upon United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funding. One such organization is the Princess Basma Center (associated with the Arab Anglican Episcopal church) which works with Palestinian children with special needs and their families.
In March 2012, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen wrote to Secretary Clinton and USAID that she was releasing her hold on $88.6 million of the funds. However, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen also listed a number of her own conditions for the funding that were not a part of the original legislation passed by Congress.
Shortly after Easter (and not coincidentally just a day prior to a meeting of the Middle East Quartet), Secretary Clinton wrote to Rep. Ros-Lehtinen informing her that the Obama Administration would bypass her hold and additional conditions and release the money appropriated previously by Congress. CMEP supporters sent nearly 2,000 messages of thanks to Secretary Clinton for her action.
For FY 2012, $200 million was appropriated for development and humanitarian aid to be delivered via USAID. This is the same amount as FY 2011. However, a number of conditions were placed on the aid. These relate to the PA continuing to engage in the peace process and can mostly be waived by the president if he deems it important for national security that the PA gets the aid that has been appropriated.
In an environment increasingly defined by debt reduction, Congress is beginning consideration of the FY2013 budget, which requests $230 million in aid. CMEP will be watching the deliberations closely to ensure that the budget isn’t balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable Palestinians.
The 2012 CMEP Advocacy Conference is fast
This year’s advocacy conference will be held June 18-19 at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center at The Catholic University of America here in Washington, DC. Speakers confirmed so far include Trita Parsi, founder and President of the National Iranian-American Council, and Amb. (ret.) Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005).
In addition, there will be numerous workshops on topics including Middle East peace and the upcoming U.S. elections, an update on Jerusalem, and the role of water and access to water in the peace process.
Register now at www.cmep.org!