Palestinian officials have warned that the newly formed, and potentially unstable, government in Israel would “bury” the possibility of a two‑state solution between the two sides – one of a number of issues that threatens to damage Israel’s standing in the international community.
“Congratulations Israel. Your new government has ensured that peace is not on their agenda,” said the PLO’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. He accused Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, of “leading the charge to bury the two-state solution”.
Mr Netanyahu has set in motion a right-wing coalition, with the slimmest possible majority – 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset – just before a deadline of late on Wednesday night. If he had faltered, President Reuven Rivlin would have offered the chance of forming a government to another party.
The peace process has been frozen since the US-led negotiations between Israeli and the Palestinians broke down in April 2014. The new coalition appears to leave the international community with little hope that talks will resume in the near future.
The US President, Barack Obama, who has appeared increasingly at odds with Mr Netanyahu in recent months, congratulated the Israeli Prime Minister for securing a fourth term of office and said he “looked forward to working with him” and the new government. Mr Obama said subjects open for consultation would include “the importance of pursuing a two-state solution”.
But despite Mr Obama’s welcoming words, none of the five parties in the new government – Shas, United Torah Judaism, Kulanu, Likud and the Jewish Home – has a platform which comes close to the basic Palestinian demand of an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, with minor land swaps of equitable value. The leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, has stated in the past that he is opposed to a two-state solution in the West Bank and has argued instead that Israel should annex portions of that territory that contain Israeli settlements. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said after the coalition deal, that he would investigate whether there are “realistic options” for a return to peace talks.
There had been some hope that an electoral win in March by the Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, who has argued for a freeze of isolated settlements, might have created a new wind of hope for renewed talks. When he garnered only 24 seats, compared with Mr Netanyahu’s 30, focus shifted to the possibility that he could be brought into a national unity coalition that might similarly breathe new life into the peace process.
As part of his coalition agreements Mr Netanyahu gave away a number of choice ministerial spots. He placed the finance ministry in the hands of Kulanu and put the Jewish Home Party in the justice ministry.
But he has held open the spot of Foreign Minister, and is not expected to hand it over to a member of his Likud party; this has fuelled speculation that he would continue to work to bring Mr Herzog into his government by offering him that role. Mr Netanyahu had said on Wednesday night that “61 plus” would obviously be better than the current deal. Some analysts have doubted Mr Netanyahu’s capability for keeping such a coalition together.
Mr Herzog has stated publicly that he has no intention of becoming a “fifth wheel” in Mr Netanyahu’s new government and that he would prefer to build a strong opposition that would unseat him.
After Mr Netanyahu’s manoeuvrings, Mr Herzog said, every Israeli citizen must anxiously ask themselves whether the current government “can face up to international pressure”.
Mr Ban also said that he was “deeply concerned by recent announcements” over the building of houses in an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem. This is another issue that has caused clashes with the international community: the UN and a number of nations regard such settlements as illegal.
Late on Wednesday, a district planning committee advanced plans for 400 new homes in the East Jerusalem Jewish neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo, according to an Israeli watchdog group, Peace Now. The 400 units are part of a project to build 1,500 homes that was first approved in October 2013. Only 500 homes were allowed to be built, said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, before the announcement of the latest plans.
The Palestinians have argued that such settlement-building imperils the peace process. Mr Netanyahu has insisted that Israel has a right to build Jewish homes in Jerusalem, and Jewish Home seems certain to push for the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territory as part of the new coalition.
Mr Erekat said that the election results proved that the international community must separate recognition of Palestinian statehood from the peace process. He added that the Palestinian conflict with Israel could only be resolved through an international process that set a framework for a solution; this would need to be followed by talks on how to achieve a solution.
“We call on the international community to safeguard the two-state solution by... supporting Palestinian rights and diplomatic initiatives, including the UN Security Council [and] our efforts in the International Criminal Court,” Mr Erekat said.
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