The Return of Benjamin Netanyahu
The decision by Benjamin Netanyahu to accept an offer from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to become Israel’s foreign minister means that what is left of the Middle East peace process is at a serious crossroad. Although Mr. Netanyahu was himself defeated as Prime Minister in 1999, he has never been far from the political scene and throughout Mr. Sharon’s time in office it has been a question of when, not if, Mr. Netanyahu would return from the wilderness. It would appear that this time has come and his return can only place question marks over the future of the peace process. Either Mr. Sharon is taking a calculated risk in trying to appease his rival by allowing him a voice in the direction of any Likud-led government or we are now seeing balance of power within Israeli politics move even further towards the right.
Mr. Netanyahu is an experienced and very shrewd political operator. Despite having resigned the chairmanship of the Likud Party in 1999, he made it clear that his presence was never entirely removed from Israel’s political scene. After military service in an elite Israeli commando unit, Mr. Netanyahu served as an Israeli representative to the United States and the United Nations before returning home to a ministerial post in the Likud administrations of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He served as Prime Minister from 1996 until his defeat by Labour leader Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections.
Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu often took a hard-line approach to the conflict in the Occupied Territories. He was firm in his demand that he would not enter into talks with the Palestinians unless the violence was halted and was not afraid to use the military to maintain Israel’s security when required. This stance has hardened during his time out of the political limelight and he is said to favour the deportation Yasser Arafat and would resist any moves towards Palestinian statehood.
Mr. Netanyahu has demonstrated his political savvy by only accepting Mr. Sharon’s offer on the condition that the Prime Minister calls for early elections. Mr. Netanyahu claims that early elections are necessary if the right-wing government is to survive and if it’s political and economic agenda is to be pushed through the Knesset. Palestinian suicide bombings are foremost in people’s minds and it is likely that Mr. Netanyahu recognises that the right wing within Israel will prosper while the peace process remains in stalemate or should it collapse and as the violence continues. While there are repeated attacks against Israeli citizens, those who call for a harder line against the Palestinians will be the ones who win votes as the Israeli people become more sceptical of peacemaking efforts and dialogue with the Palestinians.
Mr. Netanyahu’s return from the political wilderness places Mr. Sharon in a difficult position. It has been reported that he has welcomed his rival’s proposal in principle but has not come forth with an election date. Mr. Sharon is trying to establish a coalition with other right wing parties. If any of these parties join his coalition then it is likely they will press for a tougher line against the Palestinians, demand that there is no discussion over the future of Jerusalem and seek more funding for settlements in the Occupied Territories. All of these issues are the major stumbling blocks for peace in the region and any resolution now looks even further away.
Such moves do not bode well for the peace process. The Palestinian Authority is concerned that a right wing government will only seek to escalate the conflict and has labelled the government a ‘Cabinet of war’. Only time will tell as to whether Mr. Netanyahu can secure a political comeback and whether his possible rise to the Cabinet is simply a move to placate him or indicative of a shift within Israel towards the hard-line right. It is likely that Mr. Netanyahu will use his new post to strengthen his support base and use it to mount a challenge on Mr. Sharon’s leadership, thus becoming Prime Minister once again. If that happens then the peace process will almost certainly exist in name only.
It is possible that the Israeli voters could halt Mr. Netanyahu’s political comeback. There is no guarantee they will endorse a hard-line approach to the conflict and international pressure could also play a role. It depends on how weary they are of the violence and whether they believe dialogue can achieve a lasting peace. Should they decide that it cannot and believe a tough approach is needed to stem the damage caused by further suicide bombings then the door will certainly be open to the comeback of Benjamin Netanyahu.