Will Israeli election restart peace process? Experts are not optimistic

Many observers of the Israeli election Jan. 22 might think that the results boded well for restarting peace negotiations with the Palestinians. At a panel discussion March 11, two experts – Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel; and Yael Berda, an Israeli lawyer, social activist, and Princeton Ph.D. student in sociology – were decidedly less optimistic.

The two spoke as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to try to form a government. Voting had left Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud party weaker, while a party focusing on secular economic interests – Yesh Atid (There is a Future) emerged as the second-largest party in parliament. After the election, many pundits argued that Yesh Atid’s strength heralded the rise of the moderate center that could get negotiations back on track.

Not so fast, the Princeton panelists said, noting that the peace process, and foreign policy in general, had largely been absent from the campaign. Almost seven weeks after the election, Netanyahu still was struggling to put together a government, and Yesh Atid had united with the pro-settler Jewish Home party in their coalition negotiations with Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the Likud party itself had moved to the right.

“It’s not likely that this coalition will make advances” toward peace with the Palestinians, Kurtzer said.

The panelists did identify two things that could change that, however. Berda suggested that a grassroots social-protest movement that developed in 2011 “changed politics on the ground,” and that the movement might reassert itself. Kurtzer looked for change beyond Israel’s border: “We don’t know if Washington will make it a priority,” he said.