A Continuing Quest For peace (2006–Present)
Israel’s quest for peace with its neighbors, acceptance in the Middle East, and security has been a continuous theme in Israeli policy and politics since its independence. Momentous events and changing partners have led to the reconsideration of approaches and methods, but the goal has remained consistent throughout.
No Partner for Peace
The death of Yasser Arafat had given hope to Israelis and others that the time might now be ripe for movement toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts. The choice of Mahmoud Abbas as Arafat’s successor as head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was initially welcomed as a positive indicator, despite some of Abbas’s past comments and actions.
Progress was slow and further compromised by the outcome of the Palestinian election of January 2006 that brought an end to Fatah control of the Palestinian leadership and put Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to replacing Israel with a Palestinian Islamic state, in control of the PA government. Abbas remained as president, albeit with diminished capacity to act on behalf of the Palestinians.
The success of Hamas at the polls generated two significant outcomes. One was a division within the Palestinian Authority concerning its relationship with Israel, and the other was the decision of the United States, the European powers, and various other international players not to provide funds to the Palestinians as long as the Hamas-led government remained in power. In addition, the Israeli government decided not to transfer tax revenues collected for the Palestinian Authority. This led to dire economic conditions within the Gaza Strip and, to a lesser degree, the West Bank.
After the election and the subsequent formation of the Hamas-led Palestinian government, substantial efforts were made by the major world powers (and others) to convince Hamas to accept three basic conditions in order to be deemed a relevant negotiating partner with Israel and the international community—to renounce violence, to accept the previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, and to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Over the ensuing months, PA president Mahmoud Abbas and other Arab leaders made efforts to establish some form of a Palestinian unity government composed of Hamas and Fatah that would be acceptable as a negotiating partner with Israel and within the broader international community.
At various times they seemed close to agreement, and tentative power-sharing accords were announced, but these were followed by the ending of the dialogue and violence between the factions. Hamas, for its part, after its success in the Palestinian election and its formation of the new Palestinian government, pursued a consistent theme, insisting “We will not recognize Israel.”
The Palestinian election results were as much a repudiation of Fatah (for corruption and ineffectiveness) as a vote for Hamas and its stated political objectives. Hamas won support in the election because of its platform of efficient, noncorrupt services and government for the Palestinians not because of its hard line on Israel. Nevertheless, the government led by Ismail Haniyeh brought deteriorating conditions to the Gaza Strip and to Israel’s southern areas.
Terror attacks, firing of rockets, kidnappings, digging of tunnels, and smuggling of arms continued and contributed to instability and economic deterioration, not to improved security and the prospects for negotiation and peace.Knesset Election 2006 The Knesset was disbanded officially on December 8, 2005, preparing the way for the next election to be held on March 29, 2006. In early April, with no change expected in Sharon’s condition, the cabinet deemed him officially and permanently incapacitated and unable to discharge his duties of office and then chose Ehud Olmert to serve as interim prime minister.
The 2006 election marked the beginning of a new and significant period in Israel’s political life. The voter turnout was only 63.2 percent with 3,186,739 (of the 5,014,622 eligible) votes cast. Thirty-one political parties presented lists of candidates for election to the Knesset, and all parties who received more than 2 percent of the valid votes participated in the allocation of the mandates (seats) in the parliament. Twelve parties won sufficient votes to win seats and be represented in the 17th Knesset.
Kadima won 29 seats with labor-Meimad winning 19. Other successful parties were: likud, 12; Shas, 12; Israel (Yisrael) Beiteinu, 11; HaIchud Haleumi (National Union)-Mafdal (NrP), 9; Gil (Pensioners), 7; Torah and Shabbat Judaism (United Torah Judaism), 6; Meretz, 5; United Arab list-Arab renewal, 4; Hadash, 3; and National Democratic Assembly (Balad), 3. Kadima won the March 2006 Knesset election on a promise to complete the process of separating Israel and the Palestinians by enacting a large-scale unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
The election results dramatically altered Israel’s political landscape. The new Kadima Party, without its founder and initial leader, Ariel Sharon, became the largest party in the Knesset. Despite the pedigree of many of its prominent members, the party lacked formal institutions, ideology, and leadership. It brought people from the left and right and adopted a position in the center under Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem and MK who had never before been prime minister.
labor was the second largest party. The left-right balance and the religious-nonreligious balance seemed to focus on a centrist approach. likud—led by Benjamin Netanyahu—which had dominated Israeli politics (and was the party in power) for nearly three decades (with brief interludes) shrank in size and influence. Shinui disappeared, and some of its leadership moved to other parties.
HaIchud Haleumi focused on the theme that it was the new right-wing alternative and that likud and Kadima had abandoned the historical legacy of Menachem Begin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Their leaders, HaIchud Haleumi maintained, were no longer faithful public servants who could capture the admiration of Zionists everywhere, and their economic plans no longer considered the weaker segments of the population; they also no longer treasured such values as Jewish identity and tradition.
HaIchud Haleumi contended that likud had adopted the platform of the far left and acted in opposition to the will of the majority of voters when it supported the evacuation of all Israelis from the Gaza Strip. By doing so, HaIchud Haleumi reasoned, likud and Kadima had handed Hamas a victory.The newly established Gil (Pensioners) Party, under the leadership of rafi Eitan, won a surprising seven seats in the Knesset and joined the government in which rafi Eitan, who was born in November 1926 in Ein Harod (then Palestine), served as minister of pensioner affairs. Gil emerged as an important player.
On May 4, 2006, Israel’s 31st government, headed by Ehud Olmert, was presented to the Knesset, which voted its approval of the coalition of Kadima, labor, Shas, and Gil with a majority of 65 for, 49 against, and 4 absent. The cabinet was large and a curious mix of individuals. Olmert served for the first time as prime minister. labor Party leader Amir Peretz became minister of defense, despite a lack of significant military experience. Shimon Peres, Israel’s elder statesman and former labor Party leader and prime minister, who had left labor after his defeat for the party leadership and joined Kadima, was given the post of regional development minister with a focus on the Galilee and the Negev. Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet, became internal security minister.
Olmert said that he sought negotiations with the Palestinians for a solution to the conflict, but only with a Palestinian Authority that recognized Israel, upheld all previous agreements with Israel, and fought terror. If the Palestinian Authority continued to be led by terrorist factions, it would not be a partner in negotiations, nor would there be practical day-to-day relations. Failing a change and without an agreement, Olmert declared, Israel would act to establish defensible borders and ensure a solid Jewish majority in the Jewish state.
In the government policy guidelines, Olmert noted that major settlement blocs in the West Bank were a prelude to his “convergence” proposal, which would move tens of thousands of Israelis from settlements scattered throughout the West Bank to several settlement blocs near the Green line. He noted: “I, too, like many others, dreamed and wished that we could safeguard all of the territories of the land of Israel for ourselves, and that the day would not come when we would need to give up parts of our land.” But, he noted, this was needed for a “solid and stable” Jewish majority in the state.