Tag Archives: peace process

Hitting the Reset Button on US-Israeli Relations

Secretary of State John Kerry was forced into damage control mode after off-the-cuff comments warning Israeli leaders that the country risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it continues to fail to address the Palestinian question. The evocation of the phrase “apartheid”—typically used to describe the system of state-enforced racial segregation legally mandated in South Africa until 1994—touched off a firestorm. Critics of Israeli policy, including former President Jimmy Carter, have regularly described Israel as an “apartheid state.” But both the US and the Israeli governments have objected to the term’s use in this context.

Setting aside the question of whether or not the term “apartheid” is appropriate in this context, it seems clear that Kerry’s remarks highlight ongoing challenges in the Obama White House in normalizing relations with Israel. The breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process last week was just the latest example of the slow rate of progress in addressing the question, and highlight in particular the inability of US policymakers to influence both Israeli and Palestinian decision makers as the peace process moves (or does not move) forward.

What do you think? Will Kerry’s comments undermine the Obama Administration’s efforts to move forward with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The world is preparing for the upcoming G20 summit, scheduled to meet in London later this week. While each country is arriving at the meeting with their own objectives, it is clear that the global financial crisis will dominate discussions. In this context, the main issues on the table appear to resolve around three key policy debates: developing a globally coordinated stimulus package, strengthening global financial regulation, and reforming the international financial architecture, particularly the International Monetary Fund. Police are preparing for widespread tens of thousands of protestors accompanying the meeting.

In other news from the previous week:

1. President Barack Obama on Friday announced that the U.S. would expand its commitment in Afghanistan, sending an additional 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces. The Obama administration is also hoping to refocus the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, moving away from the nebulous mission of national building and democratization and instead focusing on defeating al-Qaeda and Taliban militants operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border. FT blogger Gideon Rachman raises some important questions about the new strategy, pointing out that bringing the fight to al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan may well undermine the stability of Pakistan—an ultimately self-defeating strategy, he argues.

2. After struggling for weeks to secure a coalition government, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to convince their center-left rival, the Labour party, to join a new coalition government on Tuesday. Netanyahu hoped to bring the center-left Labour party into the coalition in order to avoid allying with a number of far right parties and running the risk of souring relations with the U.S.  Nevertheless, the new government raises concerns among many Palestinian leaders about the future prospects of the peace process.

3. The medical journal the Lancet offered a powerful criticism of Pope Benedict’s recent speech during a trip to Cameroon and Angola. During the visit earlier this month, the Pope claimed that condom use increased the prevalence of AIDS on the continent. After the World Health Organization and other AIDS experts attacked the claim, the Vatican last week issued a statement that reasserted the Pope’s claim that condom use was both ethically wrong and actually exacerbated the AIDS crisis. The condom/AIDS debacle is just the recent in a series of missteps and controversies that have plagued the current Pope. In February, he lifted the excommunication of four ultra-conservative clerics who denied the holocaust. And in 2006, he quoted a fourteenth century emperor who characterized Islam as “evil and inhumane.”

4. On a Thursday press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told reporters, “This [current global economic] crisis was caused by the irrational behaviour of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything and now demonstrate that they know nothing…I do not know any black or indigenous bankers so I can only say [it is wrong] that this part of mankind which is victimised more than any other should pay for the crisis.” Brown immediately sought to distance himself from the comments. But the comments underline the potential difficulty of securing agreement at the upcoming G20 meeting, in which Argentina and Brazil will be pushing for reform of the international financial institutions and campaigning against protectionist policies in the developed world.

5. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned against excessive stimulus spending in Europe while at the same time calling on China to expand its stimulus package in an effort to address the global financial crisis. In an interview given in anticipating of the upcoming G20 summit, Merkel argued that the current crisis was caused, in part, by policies which facilitated unsustainable growth with too much money. She argued it was necessary to avoid repeating those mistakes in the recovery. Spain’s finance minister, Pedro Solbes, on Friday said that Spain would not be able to expand its own stimulus spending, fearing that excessive national debt would undermine future economic prospects.

The Politics of Coalitions

President Shimon Peres asked Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud Party in Israel, to form the new government on Friday.   Elections held last week produced a sharply divided Knesset (the Israeli parliament).  

Like many countries around the world, Israel uses a closed list proportional representation system, which means that voters cast ballots for parties rather than for individual candidates to represent them in parliament.  Parties send a number of delegates to the national legislature based on the proportion of the popular vote they receive.  So, for example, if a party wins 45 percent of the popular vote, it would be entitled to 45 percent of the seats in the legislature.

In the most recent Knesset elections, held on February 12, 2009, twelve parties won seats in the legislature.  The largest, Kadima, won 22.47 percent of the popular vote, entitling it to 28 seats (of the total 120 seats) in the Knesset.  Likud came in second place, with 21.61 percent of the popular vote, giving it 27 seats in the parliament. Some 21 additional parties also ran but failed to garner more than 2 percent of the nation-wide vote.  Under Israeli election law, these parties receive no representation in the Knesset.  Election results are listed below.

Party                    Percentage of the Popular Vote          Number of Seats
Kadima                                         22.47                                               28
Likud                                             21.61                                                27
Yisrael Beiteinu                         11.70                                              15
Labour Party                                9.93                                               13
Shas                                                  8.49                                              11
United Torah Judaism              4.39                                                5
United Arab List-Ta’al               3.38                                               4
National Union                             3.34                                              4
Hadash                                             3.32                                              4
New Movement-Meretz            2.95                                              3
The Jewish Home                        2.87                                              3
Balad                                                 2.47                                              3

The outcome of the Israeli elections demonstrate some of the challenges faced by parliamentary systems which use proportional representation electoral systems.  While such systems more accurately reflect the will of the electorate by allowing third party candidates to be represented in the national legislature, they also necessitate the development of coalitions to create majorities in the parliament.  Without a majority in the parliament, the ruling party cannot govern effectively—witness recent challenges in Canada

Netanyahu’s proposal to create a unity government, which brings in center-right and center-left parties into a single coalition, has already been rebuffed by Kadima and Labour, the two most obvious coalition partners.  Without their support, it appears that Netanyahu may have to rely on far right parties to secure a legislative majority.  Such a political maneuver—while perhaps necessary to establish a government in Israel—would further complicate peace efforts in the Middle East.  The incoming Israeli government faces a serious challenge, then.  If Likud forms a government of national unity, brining center-left and center-right parties under a single coalition, it risks creating an unstable government which may not be able to effectively rule the country.  If, on the other hand, Likud reaches to the right, forming a coalition with some of the parties on the far right, it may create a more stable government, but it would also be a government much less likely to move forward with the peace process.  Either way, Israeli politics should provide some interesting material for the study of international and comparative politics moving forward.