Israel's Step Backward

Sunday, February 15, 2009

ISRAEL'S ELECTION last week propelled the country back in time to a political era when the parliament was sharply divided between parties that favored or opposed a two-state settlement with Palestinians. As in the 1980s, the right has the upper hand: Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu appears to have the best chance to become prime minister, even though his party finished second behind the centrist Kadima. Americans who remember Mr. Netanyahu's last stint as prime minister in the 1990s -- and there are several in the Obama administration who were working on Mideast policy then -- have to be concerned that he would repeat his strategy of seeking to delay or undermine all peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He might also press for Israeli or American military action against Iran, and he has promised to "topple" and "uproot" Hamas from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Netanyahu has said that he hopes to form a broad government including Kadima and possibly even the left-wing Labor party, which finished fourth behind an ultranationalist ticket. That would mimic the Israeli governments of the 1980s, which paralyzed the peace process but not the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Kadima and Labor, which favor continued talks on a two-state deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, would be wise to stay out of a Netanyahu-led government.

Having promised more active diplomacy in the Middle East, the Obama administration will have to grapple with how to advance its aims despite what could be fundamental disagreements with Israel's new leaders. One way to do so is to push for the conclusion by the outgoing Israeli government of a cease-fire with Hamas. Egypt was reported last week to be close to brokering a deal that would promise an 18-month halt in hostilities, the freeing of a captive Israeli soldier as well as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and the opening of Gaza border crossings. Such a deal could forestall the renewed military attack on Gaza that Mr. Netanyahu has been hinting at. It might also lead to an agreement between Hamas and Mr. Abbas that would restore a single Palestinian government.

The largest obstacle to these deals lies not in Israel but in Syria, where the hard-line leadership of Hamas is based. President Obama has promised a restored U.S. dialogue with Syria; a request for cooperation on Hamas would be a useful opening test of Damascus's intentions. The administration may also be able to cooperate with the new Israeli government on improving the economy and security forces of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

At the same time, the Obama administration should not adopt the Bush administration's practice of accepting Israeli positions as givens. Whether or not the new government favors negotiations on a Palestinian state, Mr. Obama should challenge it to continue the process started by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mr. Abbas. If Israel does not comply with its own commitments to dismantle illegal West Bank settlements, the administration should hold it accountable. Neither Israel nor the United States can afford another government that obstructs a Middle East peace.

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