In the Arena

Fig Leaf

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Ehud Barak has just led the formerly formidable Israeli Labor Party into Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. This means that Netanyahu will have the votes in the Knesset to form a government and also some centrist cover for his bull-necked project. The decision removes the last wisps of credibility that the Labor Party–the party of Ben Gurion, Dayan, Meir and Rabin–had in Israeli politics. It was fading anyway, finishing fourth in the recent elections, and its labor union-based social democracy was seeming more and more anachronistic. It was the party of the kibbutzim and it has joined the coalition of the illegal settlers.

Barak will be Defense Minister, a job he has done well in the past. But Netanyahu, who doesn’t favor a two-state solution, will be prime minister. And Avigdor Lieberman, an anti-Arab bigot, will be Foreign Minister. It is a shaky coalition. Lieberman is a fairly militant secularist, who argued during the campaign in favor of the ultra-orthodox being drafted into the army; naturally, the religious parties that are also included in the Netanyahu coalition have some trepidation about being part of the same government as Lieberman. The coalition may crumble before long, especially if Lieberman–who has been having some white-collar problems with the law–is indicted, which some Israeli observers expect.

Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government poses a real challenge to Barak Obama. What, if anything, does he say about a government that includes Lieberman? How much pressure does he put on Netanyahu to stop the spread of new settlements? (It should be noted, but usually isn’t, the all the West Bank settlements are illegal.) And if those settlements aren’t halted, what chance is there for a two-state solution? It should go without saying that there will be no peace for Israel without a viable Palestine.

For a great many of us–Jews who support Israel, but not these policies–this government is an embarrassment. In fact, according to a recent poll conducted for the liberal group J Street, 60% of American Jews oppose the expansion of settlements and 69% oppose Lieberman’s participation in the government. According to that same poll, 72% believed the US should exert pressure on both sides to move toward a deal–a policy one hopes Barack Obama will have the courage to pursue.