I emerged from Meretz USA’s April 14 teleconference with MK Chaim Oron, the Meretz-Yahad party’s newly elected leader, with a frustrating sense of stalemate, even while still hoping for a breakthrough in negotiations. Chaim Oron’s most high-profile contribution in this process has been as a liaison to imprisoned Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, whose release he champions in the belief that Barghouti can rally Palestinians toward a peaceful two-state solution.
The glaring contradiction between the Olmert government’s stated commitment to peace and its actions on the ground is terrible, but it’s based on a structural flaw in Israel’s electoral system – its extreme form of proportional representation. No ruling party has ever had an outright majority in the Knesset; this forces them to rely on small minority parties for a majority coalition. The situation has gotten worse in recent years, with a proliferation of small parties, with narrow interests, increasingly paralyzing government.
When I last counted (if I remember correctly), among the Knesset’s 120 members are 11 competing electoral blocs and 17 distinct political parties. The current Kadima ruling party has a record weak representation of 29 members, currently allying with three other parties for its majority, including a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party (Shas) that is forcing Olmert to expand housing in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. For the most part, these particular West Bank areas are likely to be retained by Israel in a final peace agreement to include a territorial exchange with the Palestinian Authority, but this has to be mutually agreed upon; it shouldn’t simply be asserted and acted upon unilaterally. Besides, Israel is violating its pledge to freeze settlement expansion.
Still, even our very dovish and acerbic sources in Washington and Jerusalem (such as Daniel Levy and Akiva Eldar — see the latter’s Haaretz column, “Talking Like Meretz, Behaving Like Likud” ) believe that Olmert may be sincere in his desire to reach a peace agreement but is cowed by political circumstances. According to recent trends in the opinion polls, most Israelis now distrust a major withdrawal from the West Bank because of the ongoing attacks from Gaza (especially when supplemented with the memory of Hezbollah’s attacks in 2006), even though they favor such action in principle.
Think about this by way of analogy: if the US were next door to Vietnam or to Iraq, we’d probably still be in Vietnam and we’d never get out of Iraq. This is precisely Israel’s situation with regard to the West Bank, especially since its total withdrawal from Gaza has not bought it a day of peace.
We and our friends in Israel believe that a different arithmetic of coalition building can get to a small majority that would support the agreement we want for peace – one including the support of the Meretz party plus three Israeli-Arab parties – but this would take a boldness and courage that is not characteristic of Olmert. And then the people of Israel would have to be convinced that such an agreement with the Palestinians would work – not an easy sell given recent history– and they would have to endorse this in a new election.