February 20, 2013

Don't worry, Livni will not be making peace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's choice of his political foe Tzipi Livni to be his new Justice Minister, and to oversee the Palestinian peace track, suggests there will be little meaningful Israeli effort on that front in the foreseeable future. Picking Livni to "run" the peace process gives him a six-seat edge in assembling the rest of his coalition, and it keeps Livni preoccupied with an issue that most Israelis now consider secondary.

During his past four years as Prime Minister, regardless of shortcomings on the Palestinian side, Netanyahu has shown little urgency or enthusiasm for re-engaging them or shoring up the moderate faction led by Mahmoud Abbas. Although he lost Knesset seats in the latest election, this had little to do with the peace process, which only ranked as a priority with those voting for... Tzipi Livni. And Livni scored worse than expected at the polls.

Livni does not enjoy Netanyahu's confidence, and she now controls only six seats through her new Tnu'ah (Movement) Party -- meaning Netanyahu has little to lose by ignoring or undermining anything she does. Even better, it helps keep any of his more powerful competitors (especially the pragmatic Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid) from using their significant capital to push the peace envelope.

Ironically, those who voted for Livni because they wanted a resumption of substantive peace talks with the Palestinians would do better if Netanyahu placed the negotiations under a trusted ally or lieutenant, rather than an arch-rival who commands only six out of the total 120 seats in the Knesset. 

And the Justice Minister, really? From Camp David to Oslo (which included the treaty with Jordan), any effective peace process has been run through the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry. In his previous government, Netanyahu handled the peace process on his own, without involving then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, without any progress. Now he proposes to run the peace process out of the Justice Ministry, which has little infrastructure or disposition for running international negotiations outside of strictly legal matters and always in collaboration with the Foreign Ministry. 

Alternatively, if Netanyahu truly cared about getting back on track toward a two-state solution rather than leveraging his coalition strategy, he could have prevailed upon his predecessor and recent Defense Minister Ehud Barak to stay on with the peace portfolio. Barak knows all the players, and generally behaved himself (at least by Israeli standards) under Netanyahu until last month's elections when he left the Knesset. He enjoys the trust of President Obama and his team, which has eluded Netanyahu. And with no Knesset seats of his own, Barak would be exclusively answerable to Netanyahu and immune from the temptations of coalition infighting.

What does Livni get from this deal? A former Foreign Minister herself, she gets to try for results with the Palestinians, against uncertain yet formidable odds. Perhaps more importantly, she gets to be in the government, which is the best consolation prize for someone who thinks she should be the Prime Minister and got kicked out of leadership in her former Kadima Party. Knowing that with six seats she will not be leading the opposition this time around, Livni has little reason not to join the government.

Most likely, Netanyahu won't even need Livni's Knesset votes to maintain his ultimate coalition in the long term. He can use her early entry to the government to punish or at least pressure Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid and its 19 seats. Most of Lapid's voters expected Netanyahu to be Prime Minister, and trusted Lapid and his top deputies to be their voice WITHIN the government, so it's almost inconceivable he won't end up joining the coalition.

Having Livni on board now also helps Netanyahu prepare for President Obama's March visit, though a high-stakes Presidential delegation is a risky test-run for inter-agency cooperation between the Justice and Foreign Ministries on the Israeli side, and the White House, State Department and Secret Service on the U.S. side. Beyond logistics, the optics are better if a credible peacemaker (or peace-attempter) is on hand for Obama's visit -- especially since Netanyahu will not be greeting the President with any significant openings on the Palestinian front. Not now, not later.

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