The following notes are from my son, Samuel Morris, currently in Gaza on behalf of the NCF. Sam has been travelling in Israel and Palestine for much of the past month and these are his observations.
2013 has been touted by many as the year to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The combination of a new American administration and the apparent surprise win by the centrist parties in the Israeli elections, meant that some thought the stars had aligned and a solution, or the beginning of one, might be on the cards. However three months into the year things do not look quite as positive.
The way that the elections were represented as a centre left success was flawed. Yes, Yesh Atid and Yair Lapid were big winners but whatever the outcome of the coalition talks, the new government will still be right of centre. The only difference will be the political make-up of the coalition, not policy. The shape of the the coalition ultimately doesn't matter. The issues that will be argued over are the draft for military service, the relationship between the secular and the orthodox and impending budget cuts - not the Palestinians.
The shift to the centre, politically, has only really involved a handful seats. The right-bloc may have got smaller but it has got harder, especially in relation to the settlements issue. An interesting footnote however is that this election may have signalled the end of the Russian voting bloc in Israel. Netanyahu made a mistake by joining with Yisrael Beitinu and creating a heavily right-wing list. However, Netanyahu was still the winner and is still in the driving seat. It was Likud as a party that took the hit.
This new voting shift reveals a new trend: The demise of the old elites within Israel. The big names from the secular Ashkenazi political establishment have been overtaken by the rise of a new elite. Bennett and Lapid are both examples of this trend. Young and modern, they represent these new elites of the Israeli right and centre.
Though the Israeli electorate is concerned with Israel's international image and with its isolation from the international community, Palestine itself was not the issue in this election. The Israeli electorate had other things on their mind. Ultimately, the unprecedented social movements that Israel has witnessed over the last couple of years were translated into votes at the ballot boxes.
Bringing Livni into the coalition is seen as a message from the prime minister to US President Barack Obama that Israel is serious about the peace process. Especially with Obama soon to make his first appearance in Israel. Livni is likely to play a role similar to that of outgoing Defence Minister Ehud Barak in smoothing relations between Netanyahu and Obama. Livni's presence in the coalition is a coup for Netanyahu; now he can go on to form a right wing coalition while appeasing the Americans with the hollow olive branch of Livni to deal with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu can overcome the bad blood between himself and Bennet, then he will be able to form a coalition. Bennet and Lapid have reservations about joining a coalition with the Haredi parties. Both want to pass laws changing the status of the ultra-orthodox in Israel, something that would be impossible in a coalition with the Haredim. The strength of the Lapid-Bennet alliance may force Netanyahu to exclude Shas and the Haredim. The negotiations have become a staring contest. Who will blink first? Whatever the outcome, this makes bad reading for anyone who hoped 2013 would be the year for a break though in finding an achievable Middle East peace process.
There may be a genuine desire to reinstate 'the peace process', but in reality this means nothing. The resumption of the peace process means the resumption of the status quo not a step forward on the road to peace. Bilateral peace process negotiations are dead in the water whether Livni believes in them or not, and may be more harmful than no negotiations at all. Both Iran and the key regional issues in regard to Syria and Egypt rank higher on Israel's to-do-list than Palestine. However, if a reasonable deal was placed on the table, the majority of the Israeli public would accept it. The issue is that there is no one on the Israeli side to initiate such a deal and no Palestinian to accept it. Time is not on the side of the Palestinians. The policy of Israel toward Palestine is one of keep as much as you can for as long as you can. Ultimately, the concept of a two state solution is slowly slipping away. The only way that this can be changed is by the involvement of the international community.
There is now more security in Israel, with fewer attacks and a high level security apparatus now in play. For the first time since 1973 there have been no Israeli deaths in the West Bank or Jerusalem. The limitation of Palestinian control to a handful of Palestinian Authority "islands" in the West Bank is seen as a better situation than handing over full authority. There is a view that withdrawal from territory creates conflict. The examples of Gaza and South Lebanon are often cited as reasons not to withdraw from further areas. The political will to provide the Palestinians with a state is currently very weak. Security is the word that has dominated Israeli politics in recent years, not peace. However this ignores the fact that peace not only brings security, but stability.
The only way for Israeli politicians to feel the need to step into meaningful negotiations is if they have something significant to gain. The Abdullah Plan was a missed opportunity. It showed that the Arab states were willing to engage meaningfully with Israel, and would have provided the infective Arab League with a purpose. If it had been built upon, instead of being flatly rejected, the current situation could have been more positive. With the Palestinians third on priority list for the Israeli political elite, after Iran and Syria, a comprehensive peace plan is the only way forward. It may be the only framework within which to resurrect the dying concept of a two state solution, as it would provide Israel with considerable trade and security benefits at a time when Israel has major concerns over the changing face of the Middle East.
It is still uncertain how the escalation of Palestinian protests over the past few days will affect any ongoing negotiations to establish a governing coalition in Israel. There are worrying signs that the West Bank and Gaza are on the verge of a third intifada, and these signs have been there for a while. With the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the lack of any political solution and Israel's policy of settlement expansion in the West Bank, a third intifada seems sadly inevitable, if things continue as they are. All this tinder box needs is a spark. Whether the recent death of Palestinian detainee Arafat Jaradat will provide that spark, has yet to be seen.