This week, President Obama announced he would be traveling to Israel in the spring, the first such visit of his second term. The nexus of international events and Israeli politics seems primed to favor both Obama and the peace process — if Obama properly leverages the elements before him.
Since the Palestinian Authority’s bid to have the U.N. recognize the existence of a nominal Palestinian state was successful in November of last year, a couple of things have happened: One, the Israeli prime minister, bowing to pressure from his conservative-controlled coalition, announced the construction of thousands of new homes deep in the West Bank. The move seemed designed to bolster Netanyahu’s profile as a hard-line, no-compromise politician — a profile that, at least partially, has obstructed efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — ahead of the elections.
The second thing that happened was that the creation of a Palestinian state, however territorially manifest, gave the Palestinian people a number of diplomatic resources, like the ability to go to the International Criminal Court, that were previously unavailable to them.
As the Algerian rebels did in the French-Algerian War, and the Tunisian rebels did before them, the Palestinian leadership made a shrewd diplomatic maneuver that, while not handing them any direct political, military or territorial control, forced the international community to sit up and recognize, perhaps, the inevitability of a Palestinian state.
What makes the timing of Obama’s visit so opportune, though, is the coupling of the recently recognized Palestinian state with the surprising —shocking, even — outcome of the Israeli elections in January.
In that election, Netanyahu’s Likud party was expected to win handily. While it did win, another party, Yesh Atid, a middle-of-the-road party headed by a former television host, Yair Lapid, came in a close second, gaining 19 seats against Likud’s 31, out of 120 seats total.
This means that, rather than the governing coalition being controlled by hawkish, rightist factions, it wil include a sizable dose of moderation.
More than that, the fact that a moderate party had such strong electoral gains signals an error on the part of Israeli and American pollsters, who saw the Israeli electorate as surging rightward.
If the public instead voted to put into office a formidable, if not majority, moderate party, and moderation in Israeli politics is equatable to flexibility in negotiations with the Palestinians, that says a lot about the resilience of peace in the Israeli public’s mind. Despite everything — the most recent flare-up in Gaza especially — Israelis are still looking to negotiate. Clearly, though Netanyahu maintains a strong hold on Israeli politics, the deadlocked peace talks have not reflected kindly on him.
When Obama takes the trip to Israel next month, then, he should have his eye on the hope the Israeli public still possesses. Netanyahu can no longer claim that, politically, he could not afford renewed negotiations. If anything, the recent election was a litmus test, and the results were, if the right continues to hold the hard line it has, that it may well soon by supplanted by more moderate factions in the Israeli political arena.