Playing Politics

05.14.13

Labor’s Attention Turns Back to the Peace Process

It seems as though in recent weeks, Israel’s Labor Party has returned its attention to the peace process. This is a good thing, because Shelly Yachimovich has an opportunity to push the issue and throw Labor’s weight behind real progress.

Yachimovich has urged Benjamin Netanyahu to respond positively to the revised Arab Peace Initiative and, even more interesting, has met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss how to move forward. What’s more, she did so without consulting her party, indicating she wants to both keep control over party ideas and to claim the spotlight on the issue.

Although the Labor Party has long been identified as the political representative of the peace camp, these recent developments are noteworthy because Yachimovich made the decision to all but ignore the Palestinians, the settlements, and the peace process during the election campaign. She took heavy criticism for it; analysts thought she was being too cynical for playing politics. She certainly made mistakes, but I maintain that her election strategy was the right one for the time—Israelis were simply not interested in thinking about the peace process, and it’s not clear she could exude much credibility on the issue. But given that this is the most propitious moment for real progress in negotiations in a long time, this is an opportunity for Yachimovich to exert leadership and to make a real difference.

Contrary to popular assumptions, Israelis don’t always vote on foreign policy, including the conflict with the Palestinians. But at the same time, it’s clear that since the onset of the Madrid process in the early 1990s, the peace process and the Palestinians can’t be completely ignored. This time, renewed American and Arab attention, an increasingly strong Hamas, the Syrian civil war, bolder settlers, and domestic struggles over the Israeli budget have combined to provide Yachimovich with a chance to seize the issue while few others are.

To be more specific, Tzipi Livni is working on the issue, and pushing it as much as she can. But her efforts have been expected—it’s what she campaigned on. Bibi has left himself open to the possibility of renewed talks, but hasn’t taken the lead in it. Naftali Bennett has allowed for negotiations to take place, but certainly isn’t going to push the issue. Most importantly, Yair Lapid—who campaigned in part on taking a new approach to the peace process—has been silent. To be fair, he is now Finance Minister and is busy putting together the government’s budget and trying to draft the haredim. But he didn’t even take a public position on the Arab Peace Initiative.

Because the U.S. has now made the peace process a priority, Yachimovich can pry space open to attack the government’s lackluster response to Washington and the Arab League, and channel Israelis’ frustration with the government’s economic plans.

By providing oppositional support to Livni’s efforts, and perhaps even leading the Knesset in a combined push to this end, Yachimovich will draw more attention to the issue and keep it on the public agenda. By combining the lack of government movement on the peace process with the concrete benefits that accrue from working toward an independent Palestinian state, Yachimovich can contribute to some real progress on the issue by hitting the government over the head until, combined with external pressure, it starts to move seriously on negotiations.

Yes, Yachimovich is playing politics with the peace process, although she does seem to truly believe in a two-state solution and the need to get out of the West Bank. But politics over principles is what’s needed at this point. Israelis simply aren’t interested in dreamy slogans about peace. But they do care about what affects their economic well-being. If this is what it takes to get the peace process moving again, then we should embrace the opportunity.