Tzipi Livni and the new Middle East

Guardian- 23/09/2008

Newly elected Kadima leader Tzipi Livni is the third person to lead this party in its less than three years of existence. In terms of presentation, she represents a significant change in Israeli politics. In terms of her core position on key issues, however, Livni has a great deal in common with her predecessor, the newly-resigned Ehud Olmert. Both followed a similar trajectory from the right of Israeli politics to its centre or centre left. The two undertook this journey for similar reasons. And these reasons are based on a similar reading of the key dynamics of Israel and the Middle East. This reading curiously omits a number of key factors, while exaggerating others.

The essence of both Livni and Olmert’s view of Israel’s strategic position is a very pronounced pessimism. Both of them believe that Israel is suffering from a slow erosion of its international legitimacy. As Livni expressed it in a recent speech:

A process of erosion is taking place in Israel’s basic positions on everything related to ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the international community. Issues that were very obvious to us and principles that we could clearly stick to are gradually being worn down.

Livni explains this statement in the following terms: “Today, the existence of Israel is being delegitimised, not just its physical survival but also its existence as a national home for the Jewish people.” She considers preserving and re-building Israel’s receding international legitimacy is dependent upon achieving Palestinian statehood.

This view directly parallels statements made by Olmert. Olmert, too, considered that Israel was “finished” unless a rapid two-state agreement could be reached with the secular Palestinian leadership. Olmert, like Livni, based this view on what he regarded as Israel’s declining international legitimacy. His view was that a failure to reach a final status accord would result in a “civil rights” struggle by the Palestinians, which would find support in the western world.

Kadima’s leaders, since the Annapolis conference of November 2007, have adopted a stance of commitment to the belief in historic compromise with al-Fatah. Unlike the left, however, the leaders of Kadima are committed to this path not because of hope, but because of fear.

The odd thing about their fear is that it fails to correspond with current realities. First of all, by any measurable standards, Israel’s international standing is not substantively declining. A vociferous movement to try and make this happen exists on the European (particularly the British) left. But at the risk of upsetting some readers of Comment is Free, it must be pointed out that this movement has enjoyed no substantive and lasting successes.

Rather, the key dynamics of the region are serving to turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a second-tier conflict – of substantively declining importance to the region and the world as a whole.

The really important and dangerous strategic processes and events today are happening far to the east of the Levant. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the scenes for the truly vital battle taking place between the west and its allies and the forces of various versions of Islamic revival. The eye of this storm is the Iranian nuclear programme. In its dimensions and in it significance, this fight dwarfs all other regional processes.

This central dynamic is producing a new strategic map in the Middle East. It places Israel effectively on the same side as Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and perhaps Iraq – against Iran, Syria and their clients – in a new regional cold war. The latter, in turn, are interested in Israel in so far as they would like to see it destroyed. But this desire is in no way affected by or connected to any existing or future negotiating process between Israelis and Palestinians.

The vitally important process of the Islamisation of regional politics that underlies all this is in turn redefining the stances of the Palestinians. Hamas is holding its ground in the Gaza Strip. Its de facto rule over 40% of the Palestinian residents west of the Jordan River renders any idea of a secular “civil rights” struggle by the Palestinians absurd. The ineffectual Fatah-controlled West Bank Palestinian Authority remains forever locked in its patron-client relationship with the EU and the US. The trend on the ground there too is toward greater religious and political militancy.

At the same time, the local situation west of the Jordan is currently under control. Few people are dying. Like many other festering sores in the region, the dispute needs an equitable solution. But it is for the moment containable.

Now none of this is cause for celebration for Israel. Much of it is very worrying. But what it emphatically does mean is that neither Israel’s existence, nor the preservation of its relations with the west, nor its links with its de facto regional allies, are dependent on reaching an ever-elusive compromise deal with an ever-less relevant Palestinian secular nationalist camp. The trends point elsewhere. In these fearful days for the region, it seems strange to point to a fear that is almost wholly without basis. But the core outlook of the two Kadima leaders currently exchanging the baton of Israel’s leadership appears to be based on such a phenomenon.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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