Senior Fellow, Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, February 20, 2009 1:00 PM
Ten days after inconclusive national elections, Israeli President Shimon Peres formally asked Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday to form the next government. Although the centrist Kadima party, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, won 28 seats to Likud's 27, a majority of parliament members said they supported Netanyahu for prime minister.
"A Netanyahu government will likely make U.S. efforts to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians more complicated," said Steven A. Cook, senior fellow of Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an e-mail interview with washingtonpost.com.
Cook was online Friday, Feb. 20, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss what the new government will mean for peace in the Middle East and for the Obama administration.
A transcript follows.
Steven Cook: Hi. This is Steven Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm looking forward to our discussion today on teh Israeli elections. Not to harken back to a bygone era, but..."Bring it on!"
Washington, D.C.: Isn't it a flaw in the Israeli electoral system that unless you're dead, you're just recycled as a candidate for Prime Minister? Don't they ever get new candidates?
Steven Cook: Interesting question. It is true that Israeli prime ministers seem to go through a revolving door. I suppose it is better than the Egyptian or Saudi systems in which leaders stay in power for decades before they die in office.
Still, you raise an interesting question about new leadership. The "heroic" group who founded the state are now, save Shimon Peres, gone. The new generation has taken over. We should expect to see a lot of Netanyahu, Livni, and Barak in the coming decades.
Fairfax, Va.: Is Netanyahu as hard line as he has been depicted in the press reports?
Steven Cook: Netanyahu is a hard liner, but it is important to recognize that he is not as ideological as some suppose. Certainly not in comparison to Ariel Sharon. The new prime minister is more of a political opportunist that hardcore ideologue. That's why he is likely to pursue negotiations with the Syrians quite seriously. To be sure, he has not signaled tremendous flexibility on the Palestinian issue, so I am not terribly optimistic. If, however, an agreement suits his political needs, you may just find Netanyahu being far more constructivethan his predecessors.
Evanston, Il.: Why wouldn't Obama answer Helen Thomas when she asked what states in the Middle East have nuclear weapons?
Steven Cook: Somehow I missed that one. I think it is important to be circumspect about the discussion of nuclear weapons in the region. First, Israel's nuclear program is officially "undeclared." Second, the United States and its allies are engaged in an effort to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions. If the president had come out and said, "Israel has nuclear weapons," it would have seriously compromised Washington's efforts regarding Iran. It seems sort of strange because Israel's nuclear arsenal is the worst kept secret of the Middle East, but that's the underlying rationale for evading Ms. Thomas.
Washington, D.C.: Could Livni join Netanyahu's government?
Steven Cook: She could. After all, she and Netanyahu share the same intellectual/ideological roots in the Likud party. That said, she has moved significantly toward a territorial compromise. She believes that without a withdrawal from West Bank territory, the Israelis will ultimately find themselves a minority population. As a result, the only way to preserve Israel's Jewish and democratic character is to withdraw. Netanyahu has not come to a similar conclusion so their positions are presently incompatible, making it difficult to cohabitate in a coalition. In addition, she would rather go into opposition in the hope that she wins outright next time.
Burke, Va.: Mr. Cook,
Since Netanyahu has 'been there' and 'has the t-shirt,' has he changed in any significant way since the last time he had the job? Will things be different or more of what Israel got with him previously? What is the most pressing issue he will face?
Steven Cook: I answered a question earlier about the revolving door of Israeli PMs. Yitzhak Rabin was a disaster during his first turn in the mid-1970s. When he returned the prime ministry in the early 1990s, he was much more effective.
Netanyahu is certainly sending signals that he his views about the West Bank have not changed.
It is likely that his priority will be how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.
Annapolis, Md.: So how does this translate to President Obama and what policy he wants in the Middle East? Is there an instant conflict with Netanyahu back in or will there be room conciliation?
Steven Cook: Anytime you have an American administration that is interested in forging Israeli-Palestinian peace and an Israeli government that articulates other priorities, it is likely that there will be friction. I expect that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is a keen observer of American politics, will do everything he can to try to accommodate President Obama given the President's popularity both in the United States and abroad. Yet, given the present political environment, I would not expect Netanyahu to want to get too far out ahead of his party, which does not trust the Palestinian leadership and is deeply distrustful of any effort to promote territorial compromise.
Clarendon, Va.: What does this mean in regard to the West Bank settlements?
Steven Cook: As long as Israelis see rockets falling on Sderot and other towns/cities in the southern part of their country, they are unlikely to support a withdrawl from the West Bank. They simply do not trust that the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank can control its own territory thus giving Israel the security it needs.
If they withdrew from the West Bank, many Israelis fear that their major population and industrial centers in and around Tel Aviv (israel's largest city) would be vulnerable to rocket attacks.
Washington, D.C.: If Netanyahu is not as much as an ideologue as Ariel Sharon can more be expected of him in confronting the settlers and other territorial issues?
Steven Cook: It's possible, but for him to take that step it would likely have to serve a specific political purpose. Netanyahu is no different from many politicians. They are motivated by a desire to get re-elected. If he perceives that the Israeli public would support a change in posture toward the settlers, he would likely move in that direction.
Chantilly, Va.: What has been the reaction in the Arab world?
Steven Cook: The reaction has been universally negative. The Arab world believes the elections will ultimately result in more violence in the West Bank/Gaza and Lebanon. Commentators have argued that the rightward shift (not as dramatic as portrayed, however) of the Israeli electorate demonstrates the "real face" of Israel.
Baltimore, Md.: When do you think Obama will make a trip to the Middle East and meet with Netanyahu and others? Also, do you think Netanyahu will feel pressure to keep things moderate in order to assuage relations with the U.S.?
Steven Cook: It's not at all clear when the President would visit the region. There needs to be a reason for him to go. His Middle East envoy, Senator George Mitchell, is only going to be making his second trip to the region. I would expect if there is some kind of dramatic breakthrough or if at some time in the future Mitchell needs some extra help to get a deal, you might see a presidential visit.
Relations with the United states are an existential issue for Israelis. I expect that Netanyahu is going to do everything he can to maintain good relations with Washington. That said, to the extent that the Obama administration is interested in encouraging Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations and the Israeli prime minister is not, there could be friction.
Arlington, Va.: A question for you Mr. Cook. What, in your opinion, is the solution to the Palestinian issue? There has to be one and will require 'give and take' on the parts of both. What are the items both have to 'give' to make it work?
Steven Cook: The outlines of a deal are fairly clear, but there are two issues that I believe are the primary obstacles to peace. First, the general Arab refusal to recognize Israel's legitimate right to exist in the region. They may recognize the reality of Israel, but not it's legitimacy. Second, Israeli settlements. As long as the Israelis are expropriating Palestinian land to build settlements, Arabs can only draw the conclusion that Israel is not interested in a two-state solution.
Adelphi, Md.: Frankly, I'm surprised that Livni didn't win. We've seen and heard so much about her recently in the news and I thought she was an up and comer and I was also surprised that Netanyahu won, since I wasn't even aware that he was in contention.
Steven Cook: Livni's party, Kadima, did win one more seat than Netanyahu's Likud. However, when you combine Likud's total with that of other parties of the right, notably Yisrael Beitenyu, the right can control more seats in the Knesset. It is unusual that the party with the single biggest bloc of seats will not be asked to form a government, but it is not at all clear that Livni would be able to establish a stable coalition.
Netanyahu was actually the front runner throughout the entire campaign.
Washington, D.C.: How do you see Hillary Clinton's role in the Middle East conflict?
Steven Cook: I assume you mean, "What is the Secretary of State's role in Middle East peace?"
As the country's chief diplomat, Secretary Clinton will likely be intimately involved in promoting peace between Arabs and Israelis, helping to secure diplomatic support for an eventual withdrawal from Iraq, and confronting Iran over its nuclear program.
Portland, Oregon: Will Israel be more likely to attack Iran?
Steven Cook: Iran's nuclear program is frightening. The Israelis want to ensure that there is a military option available given the fact that diplomacy is unlikely to be successful unless there is a credible military threat held in reserve.
Still, the Israelis alone do not have the technical capability to attack Iran without flying over Iraq. The United States controls Iraqi airspace and Washington is not likely to give the Israelis the permission to use it in an attack on Iran.
Washington, D.C.: Given Liberman's stated preference for some sort of a "loyalty" oath for the Arab-Israeli citizens, wouldn't such a proposal be challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court and, given the prior decisions from that body, ultimately rejected?
Steven Cook: That is likely the scenario. Liberman is a racist, but interestingly he has no ideological commitment to the Land of Israel. That is to say that he would be willing to negotiate a two state solution that would give the Palestinians the West Bank and even East Jerusalem. What motivates Liebrman is demographics. He is deeply suspicious of the 20 percent of the Israeli citizenry who are Palestinian and ultimately wants Israel to be more Jewish. His loyalty oath scheme is part of that goal.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Isn't it sometimes easier for a leader from a hard core position to negotiate with the other side, as the loyalty of the negotiator is less questioned? Are there openings here where Israel may finally begin unofficial talks that lead to a true that affects both Gaza and the West Bank?
Steven Cook: This is the old "only Nixon can go to China" argument. It's entirely possible. An Israeli version of this aphorism is, "Only Labor can make war and only Likud can make peace."
I am not terribly optimistic about new diplomatic openings. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, is quite weak. Hamas, which is locked in a struggle with both Israel and Abbas, controls the Gaza Strip.
That doesn't seem like the best scenario for success, but in time, there are likely to be new opportunities to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Steven Cook: Thanks for the great questions. I have to run. Sorry I did not get to all of them. Have a nice weekend.
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