Israel's national elections on Tuesday left no immediate winner and could usher in several weeks of political maneuvering to select a Knesset leader who will form a governing coalition. The question now facing the Obama administration is: what are the prospects for peace talks given the deeply divided Israeli leadership and electorate?
While no overwhelming winner emerged, Israel's pro-peace movement lost significant ground in this election. The rise of a group like Yisrael Beitenu, which came out ahead of the Labor Party, is indicative of a disturbing shift in Israeli public opinion. The party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has called for mandatory loyalty oaths for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
No single party earned enough votes to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset (Kadima won 28, Likud 27, Yisrael Beitenu 15, and Labor 13), leaving Livni and Netanyahu, the leaders of the first two parties, respectively, contending for the right to form the next government. The right-wing block, to which Likud and Yisrael Beitenu belong, won more votes than the left and could easily coalesce to form a governing body if Netanyahu is chosen as Prime Minister. Alternatively, Livni may form a coalition with right-wing parties in order to maintain her leadership. However the cards may fall, the prospects for peace talks with the Palestinian leadership have been debilitated by the rise of ultra-nationalist and xenophobic parties in Israel.
To be sure, none of the party leaders are friendly with groups that advocate for Palestinian rights.
Lieberman has been widely accused of racism against Arabs>, due to his recent support for a national loyalty test for Palestinian citizens of Israel: "Without loyalty there can be no citizenship." Lieberman said that the Likud party intended to support his party's platform to implement a loyalty test to citizens.
During his tenure as Prime Minister in the 1990s, Netanyahu insisted on a policy of three "no's": No withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no withdrawal or even discussion of the case of Jerusalem, and no negotiations under any preconditions. In the run-up to Tuesday's elections, he maintained his support for the expansion of settlements in the West Bank to meet the "natural growth" of those populations.
And last month, while international human rights organizations and humanitarian agencies called the living conditions for Palestinians a "catastrophe" and "the worst ever," Livni said that "there is no humanitarian crisis in the Strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce" and claimed that "Israel had been careful to protect the civilian population and had kept the humanitarian situation in Gaza 'completely as it should be.'"
Regardless of who assumes Israeli leadership, the United States should pursue aggressive diplomacy by engaging all democratically-elected Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The Obama administration must exert pressure on Israel to uphold the commitments of past administrations, adhere to international law, and to cease its aggression against Palestinians, just as it exerts pressure on the Palestinians to renounce violence. It is in Israel's security interest, and America's diplomatic standing, to come together with Palestinian leaders in Gaza and the West Bank to work toward a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
For peace to have a chance in the region, the United States must support a policy of even-handedness with Palestinians and Israelis now more than ever. The will of the Israeli people is being respected and accepted by the U.S. If peace is to become a reality, the U.S. must do the same for the Palestinian people.
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