Before the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel clash in Gaza, Israel was in the throes of an election campaign, now temporarily interrupted, the vote just nine weeks away. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman having united their Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties into a single hardline bloc, President Obama’s reelection could help spur a center-left comeback in Israel once the guns fall silent. A new moderate government would join Labor, Kadima, Meretz and the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) parties together with Shas under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Israeli President Shimon Peres, who is being urged to leave the presidency for this new role at a time of supreme national need.
The fear of losing the upcoming election, and the gathering portents of such an upset, may have played a role in prompting Netanyahu to assassinate Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari and opt for large-scale retaliation to Hamas rockets at the very time that Jabari was seriously considering a long-term truce proposal with Israel. On that very day Olmert was also expected to announce his plan to vie with Netanyahu for the prime ministership, as Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu were slipping in the polls. There is, after all, nothing like military victory (however hollow and temporary), leavened with fear, to rally Israelis round the flag and keep “strong” leaders in power. But events could soon spin out of control if a ground invasion ensues, boomeranging on Bibi. A contest whose outcome was largely about the cost of living and social justice, where the center-left holds a clear advantage, is now once again about peace and war, Israelis and Palestinians.
Some Obama advisors are doubtless channeling the conventional Israeli wisdom that Netanyahu and an emboldened rightist bloc will be returned to power for another term, and counseling him to “wait and see” the outcome of Israel’s ballot before deciding on next steps for his Israeli-Palestinian peace policy. He should not heed their advice.
Many observers doubt that Obama will venture a new gamble as Mideast peacemaker. Tom Friedman and Peter Beinart are among those who believe that he is unlikely to intervene to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts during his second term, or the remainder of his first. Beinart warns of a diplomatic initiative that would put Obama in conflict with Netanyahu, jeopardizing the electoral prospects of AIPAC-influenced Congressional Democrats in 2014, and a Biden or Hillary presidential bid in 2016. If Beinart and Friedman are right, Israelis and Palestinians are headed for even darker days, while U.S. standing in the Middle East will fall to a new low.
Recent polls suggest that the center-left bloc could draw more votes than the new Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu union. But many pundits have overlooked the evidence that Olmert or Peres would have nearly enough seats to form a government that could revive moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, advance social justice, and halt the erosion of democratic values in Israel. With Shas expected to receive 14 seats, under current projections, Olmert or Peres could form a 59-seat coalition, close but not yet enough to cross the majority threshold of 61. The endorsement of prominent Israeli security figures like former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin could lend the center-left an added boost and help undermine public confidence in Netanyahu and Lieberman.
Tom Freidman suggests that “only a radical change by Palestinians or Israelis will get [the US] to fully re-engage” in peacemaking. But the coming weeks and months are pregnant with the possibility of just such a radical change. President Obama alone has the power to transform Israel’s political landscape at this pivotal moment. By appointing President Bill Clinton as his special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace talks now and placing a U.S.-brokered negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of Israeli discourse once again—a move which would enjoy overwhelming support both from American Jews, according to polls just released by J Street, and Israelis—he can create an opening for Israeli moderates to show the Israeli public that they are better poised than Netanyahu to move Israel towards a breakthrough in peace and security.
Obama can turbo-charge Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts with the heavyweight champion in his corner, while strengthening center-left forces in Israel when it counts, before Israelis go to the polls. This act would not require shameless electioneering of the kind practiced by Netanyahu on Romney’s behalf. But it would require Obama to invest significant political capital in a new peace initiative, now under more favorable conditions than his last unhappy foray into the Israeli-Palestinian mix. This time, he can act to help empower those in Israel who will offer the best chance of moving the region forward, and achieving one of the president’s key Middle East policy goals.
If Obama stands aside now, and the center-left does not prevail, allowing "Bieberman" to remain in power, many fear the continued decline of democratic values in Israel, perpetual war with Gaza, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and with it the end of the two-state solution, plunging Israel into a one-state nightmare.
The Palestinians will submit their bid to the U.N. General Assembly for recognition as an “observer state” by the historic anniversary of the U.N.’s November 29, 1947 decision to partition Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. In response to the expected approval of the resolution by a strong majority in the U.N. General Assembly, Congress will likely move to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, and even to the UN itself. Netanyahu will enact a series of inflammatory measures to annex West Bank territory to Israel, boost settlement construction and withhold over $1 billion in annual tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority. A new intifada could erupt, now directed against Palestinian leaders who, having achieved a symbolic and legal win as the occupation became ever more entrenched, will have failed to fulfill popular hopes for independence and prosperity.
If, before the U.N. vote, Obama fails to breathe new life into credible Israeli-Palestinian talks, he, and moderate forces in Israel and the Arab world, will face an epic crisis.
The future of peace and democracy in Israel, and the prospects for U.S. triumph or failure in the Middle East, hang in the balance. On January 21 Obama will be inaugurated for a second term as President of the United States. The very next day, Israelis will go to the polls to decide a fateful election.
The longer President Obama allows a diplomatic vacuum to prevail, the more it will be filled by tragedies like the one unfolding today in Gaza and Israel. Either militants or peacemakers will set the Israeli-Palestinian agenda. When the peacemakers lose heart, or turn their attention to other matters for too long, extremists on both sides win free rein. A two-state peace deal would unleash a headwind against extremism, sweeping away the soil that nourishes popular support for Palestinian militancy, and Israeli subjugation of another people. Either the peacemakers break the vicious circle, or the circle will become more vicious.
Obama must defy the pundits, and prove the conventional wisdom wrong. Inaction invites disaster. An opportunity of this magnitude will not present itself again during his second term. He must seize it. Bold American action in response to the Palestinian U.N. gambit and the Gaza conflict can help propel progressive forces back to power in Israel. President Obama should give Mideast peace one more chance—now, when it matters most.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.