Elect Livni, Not Netanyahu, to Keep Peace in Reach for Israel

The answer to the question posed in Bob Simon's bold 60 Minutes segment, "Is Peace Out of Reach?" may be rhetorical, but perhaps can be best answered with the conditional, "Well, it depends who wins Israel's elections?"

On Tuesday, Israeli voters will go to the polls to elect a party to either participate in the peace process or to undermine it. If we go by the polls, the answer to Simon's question is yes.

In Israel, the party that appears toughest on national security is bound to win, explaining in part Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's brutal and hard-hearted handling of the War on Gaza, Benjamin Netanyahu's criticisms that the war ended prematurely and the continued threats from leaders of Israel's largest parties of fierce and disproportionate attacks on Gaza.

In a conflict plagued with cyclical events and the consistency of non-progress, recent polls suggest that the hawkish right wing party Likud, led by Netanyahu, is predicted to win the majority of seats, making the answer to the question of a possible peace with Palestine all the more hopeless. Positioned to win his old job back, Netanyahu's appointment as prime minister is a likely disaster for an already elusive peace process.

By simply attacking his two rivals for choosing to end the War on Gaza prematurely, Netanyahu may have already secured his victory, although anyone who knows anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows that the solution will ultimately be diplomatic, not violent. His stark opposition to a two-state solution and refusal to negotiate with Palestinians is a recipe for more war, not peace.

While Netanyahu's campaign slogan, "Together We Can Succeed," is a convenient play on words of Obama's "Yes We Can," he is certainly no Obama. Unlike Obama, in Netanyahu's political considerations unwavering force trumps negotiating with his adversaries. Despite his attempts to imitate Obama, the undeniable fact is that Obama is tomorrow's leader and Netanyahu is yesterday's.

Unlike Obama's hopeful "Yes" we can approach, Netanyahu is known for his three-pronged "NO! policy" approach to the Palestinians, which includes no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no negotiations under any preconditions and no discussion of the case of Jerusalem.

Before the war, Netanyahu and Likud were ahead in polls. During the war Livni and her Kadima party gained as Israelis rallied behind their acting-prime minister. Now that the war has ended without Hamas having been defeated, Netanyahu is back ahead. Despite Livni and Barak's efforts to flex their political and military muscles, the more hawkish Netanyahu is capitalizing on the continued launching of rockets into Israel to continue to gain support and rally Israeli constituents to his side in the last days leading up to the election.

Tzipi Livni, once a member of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, is no peace dove herself, but she offers a much better prospect for peace than Netanyahu.

Until Ariel Sharon formed Kadima, Livni was a Likud activist, but has since become a strong supporter of a two-state solution, of ending the settlements, and had lobbied for the pullout from the Gaza Strip to be ratified by the Knesset.

Although she ignorantly announced that "there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza" during the recent war, she also famously told Nightline in an appearance in March 2006 that "somebody who is fighting against Israeli soldiers is an enemy and we will fight back, but I believe that this is not under the definition of terrorism, if the target is a soldier."

This nuanced approach (novel, as far as Israeli politicians go) is more in line with the strategy President Obama is expected to pursue in trying to find a resolution to the conflict.

Still, Livni's use of the phrase "change realities on the ground in Gaza" when referring to her previously stated goals of stopping rockets being fired into Israel and the smuggling of weapons through tunnels dug along the border with Egypt, suggests she knew a goal of completely removing Hamas from power would be virtually impossible. Her ambiguous choice of words used in hopes to minimize criticism of her failure to deliver may cost her the election if we are to judge her, as Netanyahu is, on her inability to achieve on her military objectives and justification for going to war to begin with.

Despite attempts to defend the conduct and tout the success of the war such as Ehud Barak's comment that, "Hamas was dealt a blow like no other since its creation," both Livni and Barak have ignored the negative international publicity, wide accusations of war crimes and ultimate failure to achieve their stated goals. As Hamas digs new tunnels across the Egyptian border despite Israel's heavy bombardment at the Rafah crossing, continues to fire rockets into Southern Israel and maintains enough power to raid a UN warehouse in Gaza City to snatch over 3,500 blankets and 400 food parcels, the legitimacy and success of Israel's war will only come under further scrutiny.

The continuation of dozens of rockets launched into Israel and ability of Hamas to kill an Israeli soldier after the ceasefire only emboldens Netanyahu's criticism of his rivals, narrowing the prospect of peace in the months and years to come.

The war was popular and perhaps remains so. But the large majority of Israelis that supported the war wanted to see a more tangible result - the eradication, if not destruction of Hamas -- and that didn't happen. And while both Livni and Barak can be thankful that the war ended with only thirteen Israelis killed, they are still facing tough competition by Netanyahu. Had more died, they would surely have lost to Netanyahu.

These developments have allowed Netanyahu to successfully frame Livni and Barak's decision to halt the operation as another failure of the ruling Kadima party (Netanyahu had previously criticized the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, believed by many in Israel to be the main reason that Hamas has been able to rearm and increase it's military presence in the strip).

As Livni attempts to justify ending the war, comments by generals such as Brig. Gen. Zbika Fogel have diminished her credibility. Fogel accused Livni and Barak of wanting to avoid heavy Israeli casualties during President Obama's inauguration and just before Israel's national elections.

"On January 20th, they didn't want to see the TV screen divided in two parts -- one for the ceremony and the other for the war," he said.

Whether or not Obama was consulted on Israel's decision to end the war just before his inauguration, by declaring a ceasefire before completely toppling Hamas, Livni and Barak ensured there would not be another perilous power vacuum to push Gaza into further violence and chaos. In 2005, Israel, led by Sharon, unilaterally decided to disengage from Gaza, ignoring the Palestinian Authority's inability to enforce law and order at the street level. This allowed for armed groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas to capitalize on the vulnerable situation and fight for political precedence in Gaza, creating a deep physical and political division among Palestinians.

At the time, the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and others argued the disengagement would not end Israel's legal responsibility as an occupying power in Gaza. Sharon and Livni (a staunch supporter of the disengagement) should have known that a swift unilateral disengagement would result in an ugly power struggle that would complicate any future prospects for peace since as the occupying force they were in complete control of Gaza and aware of which armed factions were strongest on the ground.

Ironically, Livni's decision to end this war may have served Obama well, but as it turns out may not have been in Livni's best political interest - at least that is Netanyahu is trying to prove. While a country at war (take the United States during 2004, or former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who won a victory in the 1983 general election during the Falklands War of 1982) rarely votes the current leadership out of power, in this particular case, many Israeli's believed this was Israel's opportunity to get rid of Hamas for good - and in that regard Livni failed.

But despite her failures, her approach to the conflict with the Palestinians is compatible with Obama's foreign policy approach. Unlike Netanyahu, whose Likud party has been critical of efforts by the Bush administration to negotiate with Abbas on settlements and Jerusalem as a shared capital in hopes of creating a viable Palestinian state, Livni can work in tandem with the Obama administration to pursue these goals.

While Netanyahu has tried to appear as the "change" candidate more likely to steer Israel into a secure and prosperous future as demonstrated in the November 14 article in the New York Timesoba, the reality is quite the opposite.

Netanyahu's campaign Web site
is almost identical to the video-filled, social networking based site that helped push Obama to victory. Just as the Obama campaign linked Mr. McCain to President Bush, they have attempted to label Livni, who is the acting prime minister, as a continuation of the failed current policies and Mr. Netanyahu as the candidate of change.

In the 60 minutes segment frenetically forwarded across the Arab world and viewed by many as a signal of a change in the American media's biased representation of the conflict, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni, acknowledged that peace is unthinkable with the settlers where they are.

"It is not going to be easy [to move the settlers] but this is the only solution," she said.

If for no other reason, this is why Israel must elect Kadima and not Likud.

In the same segment, Daniella Weiz, the mayor of Kedumim, a large settlement in the West Bank, told Simon that there would surely be a mutiny in the army if the Israeli government tries to move them and prevent them from building on what she claimed to be Israeli land. She intends to "stay forever" and she explained that the "settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel. This is the goal and this is the reality," she said.

It is also important to note that for the first time in Israel's history, the Labor party, led by Ehud Barak may be only the fourth largest party in parliament, pushed back by the surprising success of Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of "Yisrael Beiteinu" or "Israel Our Home" whose slogan is, "Without loyalty, there is no citizenship."

Lieberman's popularity among Israel's youth is a frightful indication of the possible direction towards an even more intolerant, more violent and less secure Israel. At the Plaza Hotel in Upper Nazareth yesterday teenagers gathered near the hotel waving Israeli flags and shouted "Death to the Arabs" at passing cars. Lieberman's party, "Yisrael Beiteinu" won the mock elections held in 10 high schools across Israel which included 2,877 students polled. Among these students Yisrael Beiteinu came in first with almost 20 percent of the vote, Likud in second, Labor in third and Kadima in fourth.

The increase in Yisrael Beiteinu's support in the actual national polls corresponds with the recent drop in Likud seats, though the elections still remains too close to call. But the success of Lieberman, who is pressing for a new bill that would force all Arab Israelis to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state or lose their citizenship and the right to vote, is troubling even if he doesn't stand a chance at becoming elected prime minister.

During the War on Gaza, the Central Elections Committee, after requests were made by Yisrael Beiteinu, voted overwhelmingly to ban the Arab parties United Arab List-Ta'al and Balad from running in this month's parliamentary elections amid accusations of racism, supporting terrorist groups and refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist.

Lieberman responded to the Supreme Court decision by alleging that the supreme court essentially gave the Arab parties license to kill the state of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

"In the next Knesset, we will pass a citizenship law that will prevent the disloyalty of some of Israel's Arabs," he said.

The War on Gaza prompted many Israeli Arabs to accuse their own government of committing "war crimes" even "genocide." The disillusionment among many Arab Israelis has led many to choose not to participate in the elections, though the decision by many to boycott the elections is also controversial within their community.

Over the past decade there has been over a 20 percent drop in election participation among Arab Israelis, which is now at just under 56 percent.

With only a few days left before the vote is held on Tuesday, almost 1/5 of Israelis reportedly remain undecided. If Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party wins, as some polls suggest, he will likely bring both Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and Ehud Barak's Labor Party into his government. And if he does, it seems that we can answer Bob Simon's question with certainty.

Not only will peace with the Palestinians be out of reach, but peace within Israel may also be hard to hold too.

(On a lighter note, here is a video I found on You Tube that seems like a Kleenex ad that capitalizes on the anticipation to Tuesday's elections in Israel with their own slogan: "No matter what it will end with Kleenex")

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