The New Political Situation in Israel

Israeli voters effectively changed the political landscape in Israel. Not only has the incumbent Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, lost and lost badly with the election of Mr. Barak by a wide margin, but there has also been a general shift from the right of the political spectrum towards the center or center-left. Many new parties gained seats in the recent Israeli elections and religious parties increased their representation as the two largest traditional parties were reduced in number. Yet all of these changes shouldn’t obscure the aforementioned trend, which represents a clear mandate for serious changes in policy with regard to the Middle East peace process.

The question now is whether Mr. Barak will act upon that mandate and move quickly to advance the Palestinian-Israeli track and to reinstate the Lebanese-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli tracks of the process towards the establishment of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. In the forthcoming period, the answer, given the nature and background of the individual, is by no means a clear one. In actuality, the relief felt by the Palestinian side at the result of the Israeli elections has more to do with who lost rather than who won.

The real test for Mr. Barak will come soon with the need to take a position on the flurry of settlement activities in and around Occupied East Jerusalem, which were initiated by the outgoing government led by Mr. Netanyahu. Many argue that such activities cannot continue without at least the tacit approval of the newly elected Prime Minister. However, his formal position remains to be revealed and it will dramatically affect the prospects for peace. The most appropriate policy for Mr. Barak to pursue would be a total freeze of all settlement activities.

Of importance as well is the need for Mr. Barak to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements and to proceed immediately with the implementation of the Wye River Agreement, including the two stages of redeployment and the negotiations on further deployment. Then will come the difficult task of negotiations on the final settlement. Mr. Barak should commit himself to the already-developed U.S.-European position on the need to conclude those negotiations within a maximum period of one year’s time. The Palestinian side, as well as the Arab side, is ready to proceed in a serious manner, provided that Mr. Barak and the Israeli side is ready. Let us hope that this is the case.

The Arab side in specific needs to mobilize capabilities and to coordinate and cooperate during the upcoming extremely important period. Moreover, the international community should be careful not to become complacent at this crucial time and should not begin rewarding Mr. Barak simply for being elected and for things he has not yet accomplished. The international community must maintain its clear and firm position and, if necessary, serious pressure must be placed on the Israeli side to ensure real compliance with the agreements and real progress towards peace between the Palestinian and Israeli sides and the Middle East region as a whole.