Bronwen Maddox
The Times
September 18, 2008 - 8:00pm

No wonder that Tzipi Livni?s campaign managers were edgy just before the polls opened. Sitting in their offices, under thin-lipped posters of their normally photogenic champion, they talked at twice normal speed about how she was sure to win. In the end, her pitch for ?change? beat Shaul Mofaz?s ?security? refrain only by a whisker. She has won the leadership of the Kadima party, but nothing certain by way of power.

There is no question that European governments wanted her to win (although Barack Obama could remind them that their wishes can repel voters). Livni said what they wanted to hear: that she will keep talks with the Palestinians going (where Mofaz might not have done). But the only fair expectation of the outcome is close to zero.

That is partly for the familiar reason that Israel?s extreme democracy does not often deliver governments with the power to push through decisions that a minority detests. Livni?s struggles to form a government will soon illustrate that point. Equally, the split in the Palestinian leadership between Fatah and Hamas may make it pointless to talk only with the former. Nearly three years after the elections that brought Hamas to formal power, the US and EU are floundering, unwilling to talk directly to the militant Islamic group and hoping that pouring aid on Fatah (while invoking irrelevant comparisons with Northern Ireland) will make Hamas go away. A brief look at the group?s control of West Bank schools and services is enough to reckon that it won?t.

The deeper questions are whether enough Israelis still see the conflict with the Palestinians as so urgent a threat that they will compromise, and whether their leaders will spare attention from the Iranian nuclear drama to try.

To hold even a fleeting conversation about these issues in Israel or the Palestinian territories is to find yourself trapped in a claustrophobic language of a few dozen words, which their speakers regard as invested with such horror that they should self-evidently end any argument. On the Israeli side, the trump word is ?security?; on the Arab, ?occupation?. It is hard in Israel, when Iran comes up, also to escape ?existential threat?.

Of course, the idea of Iranian leaders, claiming divine direction, sending a nuclear missile to Tel Aviv, is inescapably menacing. A subtler version argues that the threat alone will damage Israel by deterring immigration and investment. It is impossible to dismiss these. But over Iran, Israel has much of the world ? and the region ? on its side, even if none feels the threat so directly.

That isn?t true of the failure to reach a deal with the Palestinians. European officials describe the huge difficulty in trying to convey to Israeli counterparts the damage that this has done to Israel?s support abroad, to its claim to moral justification, and to the values on which it was founded. This is as great an existential threat, they argue. Above all, the spread of West Bank settlements ? accelerating this year despite the talks ? undermines Israel?s claim to be serious. Standing on almost any hill, you have to ask whether the settlements and their roads and fences have not gone so far as to make a deal impossible. It is hard to think that any Israeli leader could remove so many tens of thousands of people, while a map of Palestinian areas looks like a handful of bran flakes left on the breakfast table, ?a shattered space?, as a World Bank report put it, not a potential country.

Livni?s aides say that she is convinced of the urgency, if only because Palestinians will outnumber Jews within Israel if they do not get their own state. But her seriousness will be tested only if she forms a government, and if the next US president also wants a deal. Otherwise, she will bring only a welcome new tone, without effect, to a deteriorating conflict.


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