Donald Macintyre: Is Tzipi Livni ready to take the risks needed to secure peace?

Those backing a two-state solution feel that time may be running out
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The Independent Online

One of those unglamourous but far-reaching political moments happens in Israel today. The members of Likud, the biggest right wing party, choose their parliamentary candidates for the general election in February. The outcome could well help to determine whether Benjamin Netanyahu is on course to become Israel's Prime Minister once again. And on that much may hang.

In Washington last week, Tony Blair optimistically repeated that the Israeli Palestinian conflict can be solved. It wouldn't be a Blair speech if several of its assumptions weren't open to question. But few would quarrel with his implicit appeal to Barack Obama to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of his foreign-policy agenda, not least because solving it might help with some of the world's other problems.

Blair may be right in thinking that Obama has a chance of producing speedier and more tangible results on Israel-Palestine than on some of the other issues clamouring for his attention. Yet a minimum requirement for that may well be an Israeli government which at least pays lip service to Washington's thinking on a two-state solution.

So far the omens are not good. Recent polls show not only that Likud has opened a sizeable lead over Tzipi Livni's ruling and – in Israeli terms – centrist Kadima party but also that a right-wing, nationalist bloc would command some 60-plus Knesset seats compared with only 50 plus that would go to the centre and left.

The election is still two months away. And it may be easier to judge Netanyahu's true standing after today. A sure Knesset seat, for example, for Moshe Feiglin, the entryist leader of of an ultra-right sub-faction of Likud so extreme that he was banned from entering Britain earlier this year, would certainly undermine Netanyahu's attempts to project himself as more centrist than experience suggests he is.

But Feiglin or no Feiglin, there is no sign that Netanyahu is aiming at a negotiated solution of the conflict, much less a Palestinian state. This is a man whose decisive political act of recent times was to resign in protest at Ariel Sharon's decision to pull 8,000 settlers out of Gaza.

The irony that Israel could lurch further to the right just as the US electorate has abandoned Bush for Obama has not escaped the Israeli commentariat. The election which brought Ehud Olmert's Kadima to power in 2006 was the first in which a majority of Israelis actually voted for large-scale withdrawals of settlements, by one means or another, from the West Bank. None of which, of course, has actually happened.

From the 2006 Lebanon war on, Olmert presided over the atrophying of this mandate. But you have to wonder, in the face of his seemingly faultless electoral onward march so far, who will stop Netanyahu actually reversing it.

Which brings us to Tzipi Livni. Despite her high personal ratings, the Israeli foreign minister has so far failed to excite. She has good grounds for her public complaints that Olmert has not stood aside in the face of a looming indictment for fraud and corruption and let her fight the election as an acting Prime Minister.

But there is little sign so far that rather than dwell on this injustice she is prepared instead to turn it into an opportunity not only to project herself, Obama-like, as a new force for change but to convince the Israeli electorate that this is a decisive moment in their country's history. Because this it may well be.

There is a growing view among Palestinians and Israelis backing a two-state solution that time may be running out for it. At the same time the morally and tactically highly questionable strategy of inflicting ever-deepening misery on the people of Hamas-controlled Gaza in the hope that its victims will then somehow start to contrast their conditions with progress in the West Bank, could only remotely work – if at all – if such progress really takes place, politically and economically, far faster than it has done so far.

It's far from clear that Ms Livni is up to the political risks that would mean for an Israeli leader. But as someone publicly committed to a peace process, however flawed, she remains the only plausible alternative to Netanyahu. Defence minister and Labour leader Ehud Barak may have done himself some good on the centre left this week when his patience ran out with the Hebron settlers' defiance of Israeli law.

Instead of sniping at Barak, as she did yesterday, for resisting calls for even more aggressive military action in Gaza, Ms Livni would do well to start differentiating herself ideologically from Netanyahu, to remobilise the Israeli majority who still probably prefer a negotiated peace to a return to war. And for that she will have to raise her game.