At the end of November 2007, on the 60th anniversary of the UN partition resolution on Palestine, I spoke at Trinity College in Dublin at the invitation of the Jewish Students Association, to a mostly mixed audience of American and Irish Jews. Most of the hour talk was devoted to drawing parallels between Israel and Northern Ireland and then discussing the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process for Israel. But I spent the last ten minutes of my talk on the prospects for the post-Annapolis peace process.
There are four things that need to change before an Israeli-Palestinian peace is possible. First, the power of AIPAC needs to be neutralized. In order to implement a dual mediation framework with both America and Europe sponsoring the peace negotiations, AIPAC’s power needs to be offset by another group in the Jewish community. AIPAC would rather forego an opportunity for peace than allow a negotiating process in which it felt that it did not have control. The initiative of Hungarian-American financier George Soros to build up three liberal pro-Israel groups (Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek vaShalom, Israel Policy Forum) has the potential to accomplish this.
Second, the center-left peace camp in Israel, consisting of the Labor Party and Meretz, needs to recover its level of strength from the 1990s. In 1992 the two parties had a combined strength of 56 seats in the Knesset (out of 120). Today the two parties had a combined strength of 27 seats—the same amount as Labor alone had under Ehud Barak in 1999-2001. The precedent of the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which suffered at the hands of Protestant voters in 2003 and 2005 for championing the then failed peace process is not good. The UUP has yet to begin to recover and the Democratic Unionist Party has replaced it as the main unionist party.
There is an electoral price to be paid for backing a failed peace process. There is also an electoral price to pay for losing or doing poorly in a war. Labor has also lost the support of the Russian immigrants who backed it in 1992. The left’s best chance is probably a union or joint list between the two parties. Mergers changed the fortunes of both Herut and Mapai in the 1970s and 1960s. Labor’s main characteristic is its reliance on former generals. Its American equivalent was the Whig Party (1834-1856). The Whigs resuscitated their fortunes by merging with the anti-slavery Free Soil Party and adopting its program to become the Republican Party of 1856. The Republican Party won the presidency in its second election out with a civilian at its head.
Third, Israel must drastically reform its dysfunctional election system. It can do this in one of three ways. First, it can dramatically raise the entry barrier for parties wishing to be represented in the Knesset from two percent to five percent or even ten percent. Second, it can elect half the seats from single-member or small-multimember constituencies. Germany does this. Third, it can replace its list proportional representation system with the proportional representation—single transferable vote used in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.* Most existing parties oppose any major reforms of the Israeli electoral system.
Fourth, the Palestinians must unite behind a single leadership. As long as there is a virtual state of civil war between Fatah/PLO and Hamas the former will not be able to make the type of concessions needed to match Israeli concessions in a final peace agreement. The first three conditions are up to American and Israeli Jews to change. The final condition is in the hands of the Palestinians and cannot really be affected by Israel. Any Israeli moves to boost the fortunes of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are as likely to fail as succeed. If Israel makes concessions then Hamas claims that Fatah is an Israeli puppet. If Israel does nothing, Hamas claims that only force works with Israel.
I ended my presentation by advising that because of the weakness of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships the talks were likely to fail. Because of the greater strength of the Assad regime in Syria and Israel’s greater willingness to make concessions to other states than to the PLO, I recommended that Israel show a preference for negotiations with Syria over those with the Palestinians. If a peace agreement is satisfactorily concluded, Israeli leaders will not have to worry about this choice during a future peace process. [Click here to link to Dr. Mitchell’s previous article.]
*The PR-STV system allows voters to select several different candidates, although their votes are only counted once. Voters rank the candidates in their order of preference from one to six (or the number of seats in the constituency) and their votes are discarded until one is found for a candidate who has not yet secured a majority and it is then counted. Once they reach the threshold to be elected, excess votes are disregarded and the vote counters look at the next preference. That way the voter votes up to six times on a single ballot, but the ballot is only counted once. I know this sounds complicated, but so is explaining the Israeli system to those in America, Britain, etc. with first-past-the-post franchise systems.