Commentary Magazine


Topic: Shelly Yacimovich

Obama and the Consensus on Jerusalem

Leftists in both Israel and the United States would like President Obama to try and impose a peace plan on Israel in his second term. But the main plank of any American or international diktat is something that the vast majority of Israelis will not accept: division of Jerusalem. Earlier today, Evelyn Gordon wrote about how the woman leading the Labor Party back to political relevance has similar positions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the peace process. But Shelly Yacimovich isn’t the only rising star of Israeli politics that wants no part of any Obama diktat. Haaretz repots today that Yair Lapid, the head of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, went even further than Yacimovich.

Lapid said yesterday that he explicitly opposes the division of Jerusalem and that retention of the united city by Israel is not an obstacle to the signing of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. This is significant not just because it shows that Israeli centrists are competing with Netanyahu for votes by taking allegedly right-wing stands on peace process issues, but also because it runs completely contrary to one of the firmest positions articulated by the Obama administration in the last four years.

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Leftists in both Israel and the United States would like President Obama to try and impose a peace plan on Israel in his second term. But the main plank of any American or international diktat is something that the vast majority of Israelis will not accept: division of Jerusalem. Earlier today, Evelyn Gordon wrote about how the woman leading the Labor Party back to political relevance has similar positions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the peace process. But Shelly Yacimovich isn’t the only rising star of Israeli politics that wants no part of any Obama diktat. Haaretz repots today that Yair Lapid, the head of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, went even further than Yacimovich.

Lapid said yesterday that he explicitly opposes the division of Jerusalem and that retention of the united city by Israel is not an obstacle to the signing of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. This is significant not just because it shows that Israeli centrists are competing with Netanyahu for votes by taking allegedly right-wing stands on peace process issues, but also because it runs completely contrary to one of the firmest positions articulated by the Obama administration in the last four years.

If there has been one point of contention with Israel on which the president has pushed the envelope farther than any of his predecessors it is Jerusalem. While all American governments have refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, let alone over those parts of it that were occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 commonly known as East Jerusalem, Obama has gone further than that. Previous administrations had tacitly accepted the Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, most of which are 40 or more years old, as de facto parts of Israel. By contrast, Obama has treated these neighborhoods as being the equivalent of the most remote hilltop settlement in the West Bank.

It was over a housing project in one of these existing Jewish city neighborhoods that the president started a major ruckus with Israel because the announcement of the approval came during a visit by Vice President Biden. This supposed “insult” to Biden became a diplomatic crisis that supposedly demonstrated the extremism of Netanyahu. Yet as Lapid’s statement shows, Netanyahu’s position on the city still represents a solid consensus of Israeli public opinion, not just that of the settler minority.

I think Lapid is wrong when he says the Palestinian Authority will consent to a peace deal that leaves Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, since it’s quite clear that neither the PA under Mahmoud Abbas nor its Hamas rivals will recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state under any circumstances. But the Lapid statement also shows why President Obama’s attempts to undermine Netanyahu politically have failed. Though Israelis don’t want their leaders to be entangled in disputes with their only ally, they resented the president’s stand on their capital and backed Netanyahu.

If Lapid, whose party may turn out to be the third biggest in the next Knesset now that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has merged with Likud (Yacimovich’s Labor is the likely runner-up), is in agreement with Netanyahu on Jerusalem, it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public will not accept one of the key provisions in every plan that is put forward as a solution to be imposed on the Israelis: division of the city. That’s something that would remain true even if, as is quite unlikely, former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni were able to persuade President Shimon Peres to step down and lead a new anti-Netanyahu alliance in the January elections.

Though Netanyahu is not in as strong a position as he was a few months ago, the notion that the Israeli center rejects his position on peace is a leftist delusion. Quite the contrary, it is time for those who call themselves friends of Israel but wish to override its democratic system to ponder why they are so out of touch with the views of most Israelis.

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Bibi and Main Rival Agree on Peace Process

Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

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Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

And, from an interview last year: While she thinks most settlements will have to go under any deal with the Palestinians, she, like Netanyahu, doesn’t consider them “a sin and a crime.” Moreover, again like Netanyahu, she doesn’t think the “peace process” should top Israel’s agenda (though she disagrees with him over what should). In fact, as she herself said just last week, she is “fighting for” the cause of “ending the dichotomy between left and right in foreign affairs. There are no longer two blocs … it’s all a fixation.”

In short, contrary to the media’s persistent portrayal of Netanyahu as a “hardline right-winger” heading a “far right” coalition, his positions on the Palestinian issue are shared by almost all Israelis – not only supporters of his coalition, but also supporters of what is likely to be the main opposition party come January, assuming Netanyahu (as expected) forms the next government. What will probably keep Yacimovich out of his coalition aren’t her diplomatic views, but his economic ones.

Hence if Obama is hoping for an Israeli leader whose positions on the “peace process” will be closer to his own than Netanyahu’s, he should think again: There isn’t one.

It’s not that they don’t exist in theory: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both deem an agreement with the Palestinians top priority, fall somewhere to the left of Netanyahu and Yacimovich on specific final-status issues, and are reportedly considering running. There’s only one problem: They have virtually no support. Between them, they have held almost every senior cabinet portfolio, whereas Yacimovich is a second-term MK with no cabinet experience whatsoever. Yet when pollsters asked Israelis last week who should lead the center-left bloc, Yacimovich got more votes than Olmert and Livni combined.

That’s no accident, any more than the fact that Labor – the party that signed the Oslo Accords and has traditionally headed Israel’s self-described “peace camp” – overwhelmingly voted to be led by a woman who deems socioeconomic issues more important than peace talks (“Before we … engage in a struggle for peace, we need to have a state,” as she put it). As I’ve written before, this has been the mainstream Israeli view for years. It just took a while to produce mainstream party leaders who agreed.

Today, Israel has two: Netanyahu and Yacimovich. One of them will be running Israel for the next four years. And the sooner Obama comes to terms with that fact, the better.

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