Is Israel united in obstruction?

The new coalition government suddenly formed last week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new leader of the Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz, remains something of a mystery. It is essentially a deal between two men, not two parties. Only Netanyahu and Mofaz really know the terms under which they joined forces.

It’s easy to see what was in it for both. Mofaz was able to avoid an election that seemed likely to reduce his party to marginal status in the Knesset. Netanyahu got the opportunity to enjoy 16 months of uncontested power before the next legally mandated election.

Netanyahu had been in the political center of his previous coalition, but now he will be back in his usual position on the right. That doesn’t mean, however, that the new coalition will take a more constructive approach toward the Palestinians. But it does mean that Netanyahu has lost his principal excuse for not taking steps toward peace—that he was constrained from doing so by his dependence on more right-wing forces in Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu.

In scathing comments to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz a few days before the new government was announced, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said the primary cause of Netanyahu’s disinterest in peace-oriented measures was the political dynamics of his previous coalition.

Diskin said Netanyahu’s previous coalition had “no interest in solving anything with the Palestinians, that I can say with certainty… Forget the story they are selling you that [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t want to talk. We are not talking with the Palestinians because this government has no interest in talking with the Palestinians.” As Diskin saw it, “The prime minister knows that if he takes the smallest step forward in that direction his solid coalition will break apart.”

Whether offered as an indictment, an excuse or an explanation, this logic plainly no longer applies. Whatever the details of his private agreement with Mofaz may be, Netanyahu now heads a huge coalition that frees him from any claims of being beholden to smaller right-wing parties that won’t stand for any conciliatory measures toward the Palestinians.

The earliest indications of where the new government may be going are hardly promising. The outgoing coalition was on a rampage of settlement activity. It expanded existing settlements and dropped the long-standing pretense that it was not creating new ones. The government was in the process of retroactively recognizing “unauthorized” settlement outposts created in violation of even Israeli law, and was trying to circumvent Supreme Court orders to evacuate some of the largest outposts.

The demolition by July 1 of one of the most egregious of these, Ulpana, has been ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court, because the outpost was built, with the full knowledge of its founders and the government, on privately owned Palestinian land. Instead of using his new coalition to obey the law and enforce the court order, Netanyahu is moving quickly to create new legislation to bypass the court’s instructions.

The Supreme Court rejected a government petition to review its finding. According to reports in the Israeli media, the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office have also objected to the idea of creating a new law to bypass the Supreme Court’s order.

One of the first meetings of the new cabinet was on this issue, and it was reportedly unable to reach any conclusion. Mofaz’s position is not yet known. A draft law would retroactively legalize all West Bank outposts constructed with governmental funds or having benefited from initial technical approvals. These are estimated to include at least 9,000 outpost housing units. Supporters have expressed confidence the draft law can pass in the Knesset with the support of the new government.

If this is one of the first measures taken by the new Netanyahu-Mofaz coalition, it would be a very disturbing indication that disinterest in peace by the previous coalition will be continued by the new one. If so, it would also mean that Diskin’s diagnosis—that this disinterest was a symptom of the fragile dynamics of the old coalition—was incorrect.

The international community will have to take careful note of how the new Israeli government handles the outposts issue. If it persists with aggressive and provocative settlement activity and attempts to bypass even Israel’s own laws on the issue, the world will have to conclude that this is a consensus Israeli policy and not political necessity.

The international community will then have to decide whether to acquiesce or take serious measures to ensure that there are real consequences for decisions that severely damage the viability of renewed negotiations and the prospects for a real conflict-ending solution.