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U.S. peace effort faces new hurdle

Israeli voters' shift to the right indicates their reluctance to

February 12, 2009|Paul Richter and Ashraf Khalil

WASHINGTON AND JERUSALEM — Elections in Israel this week left uncertainty about the shape of a new government, but little doubt that the Obama administration had suffered a setback in its bid to mobilize efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

The surge in votes Tuesday for conservative parties revealed declining support for negotiations with a divided Palestinian leadership. Analysts and officials said that whether the new government is formed by the right-wing Likud party or the centrist Kadima, it probably would be too divided to conduct a peace negotiation, even if it wants to.

Neither party could form a government "that would have much receptivity to a major negotiation effort," said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

The Palestinians had an even bleaker assessment.

"The Israelis have voted in favor of a state of total paralysis," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Although Obama's new team might be able to help stabilize the Gaza Strip after weeks of heavy fighting, and gradually improve Palestinian living conditions and institutions, experts say chances for a comprehensive peace deal have been further diminished -- at least for some time.

U.S. officials acknowledged the difficulty of their task but said they thought Israel's new government would move toward peace because it's in the national interest.

"We have plenty of basis to work with whatever government comes in," said a State Department official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Middle East experts said the new conservative cast of the government would make U.S.-Israeli friction more likely in several areas.

One is over the accelerating growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Another is over how to deal with the Palestinian government if the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, tries again to form a unity government with the rival Hamas faction controlling Gaza.

Many experts foresee a potential clash over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Although the Obama administration is preparing to make a diplomatic approach to Tehran, Israelis are worried that Iran may be close to acquiring the means to make a nuclear weapon -- and they are inclined to use force.

With 99% of the votes counted Wednesday, Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, had 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset, one more than Likud, which is led by onetime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Likud and the ultranationalist Israel Is Our Home party gained 19 seats between them, while left-leaning parties lost seats. That led Netanyahu to demand that he, rather than Livni, be given the right to form a government.

President Shimon Peres is expected to ask Netanyahu or Livni to try to put together a governing coalition, perhaps as soon as next week.

Many analysts predicted that Netanyahu would prevail. But they said that even if Livni, who has worked with the Bush administration on peace efforts, formed the government, she would have to rely on conservative coalition partners who would keep her from moving toward a settlement.

David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, wrote in Wednesday's editions that the results don't necessarily mean that the peace effort is over.

"But the fact that Livni will be unable to form a coalition without right-wing parties indicates that Israelis want a new direction. They feel that the current path of negotiating with a Palestinian Authority that lacks any real authority over the Palestinians is meaningless, and that Israelis want reciprocity."

The elections have made Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Israel Is Our Home, the kingmaker. Lieberman has been called a demagogue by some for proposing that Arab citizens be required to take loyalty oaths.

Some Kadima officials warned that if right-wing parties formed the new government, Israel could lose international support.

"To speak in terms of a right-wing government will cause a disengagement of countries with which we have strategic alliances and understandings," Avi Dichter, a Livni lieutenant, said in a radio interview.

Netanyahu had a strained relationship with the Clinton administration during his years as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999. Books written about Clinton's peace efforts quote the former president and aides delivering scalding denunciations of the strong-willed Netanyahu.

The Likud leader was critical during the election campaign of the peace process promoted by the Bush administration, and skeptical that a deal could be struck. He has called instead for Israel to work on an "economic peace plan" for the Palestinian territories.

But with most Israelis eager for harmony with the United States, Netanyahu clearly tried to establish good relations with Obama at meetings they held during the U.S. presidential campaign.

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