Jerusalem. Dominated by right-wing and religious parties committed to Jewish settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian land, Israel’s new government may seem to be on collision course with Washington and other governments.
But Israeli officials, diplomats and analysts predict that Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu will sidestep isolation by easing slowly into negotiations on a two-state solution, opening a separate peace track with Syria and making clear to world powers that he makes the decisions, not the ultranationalist who will serve as his foreign minister.
Netanyahu has played down the chances of Israel falling out with the United States and the European Union.
Diplomats said he would give them at least some of what they want, including fewer Israeli checkpoints that stymie economic growth in the West Bank, to try to keep disagreements over scant progress in peace talks from boiling over.
But flare-ups are inevitable and could lead to a diplomatic crisis, particularly over Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and in and around Arab East Jerusalem, a priority for many of Netanyahu’s rightist coalition partners.
The administration of US President Barack Obama wants Israel to freeze such construction, and is considering cutting US loan guarantees to penalize Israel and to show Netanyahu’s government that Washington is serious about the issue this time, Western diplomats familiar with the deliberations said.
The European Union, in turn, may withhold an upgrade in ties with the Jewish state to keep pressure on Netanyahu to accept publicly a two-state solution to the long conflict.
But Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, the EU commission’s ambassador to Israel, took a wait-and-see
“We in the European Union simply expect that the next Israeli government will honor this commitment to negotiate in good faith for creation of a new Palestinian state,” he said, adding that the bloc would judge the government based on its “policies and performance” rather than on personalities.
Diplomats said incoming foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman would bear the brunt of any backlash on the world stage.
Some European and Arab leaders will probably limit contacts with the minister to protest against his hawkish talk about the Jewish state’s Arab citizens and neighbors, they said.
International censure is nothing new for Israel. But the criticism has reached a new height since a military offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip that killed hundreds of civilians in January. Some groups say Israel committed war crimes.
Netanyahu’s coalition pact with the center-left Labour party, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, should help the government temper international displeasure over Lieberman’s role, said Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israeli foreign minister under Barak when peace talks collapsed in 2001.
“This is not an automatic isolation that will take place following the formation of the coalition,” Ben-Ami said. “Much depends on the kinds of declarations and policies that will be pronounced by the new government. I would not be surprised if a formula to square the circle will be found.”
A commitment to negotiate with Syria and ease travel restrictions in the West Bank as part of an “economic peace” plan for the Palestinians, could give Netanyahu diplomatic cover to limit the scope of statehood talks with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, analysts said.
Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the best case scenario for Obama may be that Netanyahu “maintains the fiction” of peace talks. “It is not as if [Netanyahu’s government] will lead to the collapse of the diplomatic process — because there isn’t one.”
But the Obama administration has already signaled a more activist approach on settlements, dispatching diplomats to survey a hotly contested site near Jerusalem where Israeli rightists want thousands of homes for Jews to be built.
“I don’t see a train wreck but I see the potential for real confrontation,” Brown said.
Nicolas Pelham of the International Crisis Group said Lieberman would have limited influence as foreign minister.
A senior European diplomat concurred: “If you want to talk business, you deal with the prime minister and the defense minister. The foreign minister is not in the loop.”