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The New Israeli Government Means Diplomacy Deferred
Last uploaded : Wednesday 5th Mar 2003 at 01:30
Contributed by : Luis Lainer


Israel is passing through a storm of terrorism and violence that has significantly altered the political landscape of the country. The Labor and Meretz parties have suffered historic blows to their standing in the Knesset, even though Israelis consistently told pollsters prior to the most recent elections that they support moves to separate themselves from the Palestinians, evacuate settlements, build a security fence, and let the Palestinians have their own state—positions these parties advocate.

Instead, Israelis threw their support behind the Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a leader with a reputation for toughness who nonetheless failed to deliver on his promise of peace and security during his first two years in office.

Now Sharon has assembled a new government that will try to solve many of the problems that he has bequeathed himself: the Intifada, recession, unemployment, and growing diplomatic isolation. Unfortunately, there is nothing about the composition of Sharon’s second administration that inspires confidence in its willingness or ability to finally initiate much-needed political moves to effectively handle these challenges.

The combination of Sharon, Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party, and the National Union Party’s Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon—four stalwarts of the right and far-right of Israeli politics—is a recipe for, at best, gridlock on Israel’s diplomatic front. Among them, you have some of the strongest advocates of settlement expansion in the occupied territories, ethnic cleansing of Arabs, and violence as the only response to the Intifada. The National Union does not even agree with Sharon’s barebones vision of a Palestinian state. Combined with the new Likud Knesset delegation, which is also opposed to Sharon’s diplomatic proposals, the incoming government is likely to postpone making necessary choices about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Israel no longer has the luxury of kicking the can down the road. Within seventeen years, given demographic trends, Jews will be outnumbered in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. At that point, Israel will cease to be a democratic, Jewish state—unless it finds a way to part with the West Bank and Gaza and the millions of Palestinians who live there.

Putting Eitam, Lieberman, and Elon in charge of ministries and giving them power to shape security decisions should be a frightening prospect for Israel and its friends in the United States.

At a time of runaway budget deficits, Eitam—head of the pro-settler NRP—is in charge of the Housing and Construction Ministry, an entity that pumped over $98 million into settlement housing subsidies and construction in FY2001, according to a recent budget analysis from Peace Now. If past is any prelude, these numbers will only increase under Eitam. When the previous leader of the NRP, Yitzhak Levy, was Housing Minister in the Barak Administration, he set a record for new construction starts in the settlements, authorizing 4,499 new units in the year 2000.

Lieberman is the new Transportation Minister, with jurisdiction over building and maintaining the elaborate web of bypass roads that Israel has constructed to allow settlers to travel from the occupied territories into Israel proper. In FY01, the Transportation Ministry squandered more than $96 million for bypass roads in the occupied territories.

The deepening of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza through settlement expansion and growing economic and security costs associated with this growth are a near certainty under the new government—and an indication that the incoming Sharon administration will be no more serious about offering a viable diplomatic track to parallel its military responses to terrorism than the outgoing government. Absent such an initiative to break the cycle of violence, the daily pattern of terror and retaliation will continue unabated, much to the detriment of the Israeli people.

One ominous sign that this is exactly where things are heading can be found in the fact that Jacob Frenkel, the highly respected former Bank of Israel governor, did not accept an invitation to be Finance Minister in the incoming government. During negotiations with Sharon, he said that he would head the Finance Ministry only if he was convinced of the new government’s commitment to advancing the peace process with the Palestinians, since an active diplomatic track is required to help remedy Israel’s economic woes.

Frenkel was not convinced, and Israel lost the potential services of an extremely capable economic manager. It got Eitam, Lieberman, and Elon instead—and an ideologically driven government motivated to perpetuate the status quo rather than to make decisions that could extricate Israel from the conflict.
Luis Lainer is national Co-Chair of Americans for Peace Now



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