A Middle East Vote

Saturday, November 1, 2008

AS TALKS over a two-state settlement have stalled, Israelis and Palestinians lately have resumed old debates about whether a peaceful division of historical Palestine is still possible. Now Israelis will have a chance to vote on the question. The collapse of coalition negotiations in parliament means a general election will be held early next year to determine whether outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is succeeded by a leader committed to his unfinished negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or by one who is inclined to set them aside. At best, the outcome could allow the new U.S. president to make a Middle East settlement one of his early foreign policy priorities. But a bad result is at least as likely.

In principle, most Israelis now accept the idea that a Palestinian state occupying most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is far preferable either to continued Israeli occupation of those areas or to a single state in which Jews would eventually become a minority. That makes them liable to support Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who won a primary to succeed the scandal-besmirched Mr. Olmert as leader of the Kadima party. Ms. Livni appears genuinely committed to a peace deal, though she has appeared less flexible on its specific terms than Mr. Olmert. She offers Israelis a message of change; her rejection last week of the unseemly demands of a small religious party with which she sought to forge a parliamentary majority forced the election.

Most Israelis, however, are skeptical that it will be possible to settle anytime soon with Palestinians who are divided into two territories and two factions. Mr. Abbas's moderates in the West Bank and the militant Hamas in the Gaza Strip are negotiating to end their rift, but even if they succeed, the qualms of Israelis over Hamas's fundamentalist agenda will remain. They may also not feel much urgency: Thanks to the construction of a fence along the West Bank border and a cease-fire deal with Hamas, Israel has been more peaceful in recent months than it has been in years. That favors right-wing leader Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister. It is likely that he would seek to put off a settlement with Palestinians indefinitely. Mr. Netanyahu is seen as inflexible and untrustworthy by many in Washington; his election could spell a fractious period in Israeli-U.S. relations.

At the moment, the parties of Ms. Livni and Mr. Netanyahu are tied in the polls. A clear victory by Ms. Livni could energize the peace process, and its pursuit by the new president could strengthen the U.S. position around the region. But more likely is a narrow victory by one side or a coalition government that hamstrings Israel's negotiating ability. That would perpetuate what at present is the leading obstacle to a deal, which is the political weakness of both the Israelis and Palestinians who seek it. As the Bush administration has discovered, intervention by the United States, even if energetic, cannot easily compensate for that deficit.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company