Depending on perspective, there has been significant movement in the Israel-Palestinian peace process during the most recent decade, or not. The Road Map to Peace (2002) and the Annapolis Conference (2007) set the governments of Israel and the Palestine National Authority to a process of peaceful negotiation, and an agreement in principle about the creation of a Palestinian state.
That's the good news.
The other news is that, as far as us ordinary citizens know, there has been no significant movement beyond the declarations of principle. As I read the news, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made offers that were controversial in Israel for going too far in regard to territories and refugees that Palestinian officials dismissed as not sufficient.
The other bad news comes from Gaza, the bloody split of its leadership from the West Bank, its renunciation of peace with Israel, thousands of rockets sent toward Israel and more than a thousand Gazans killed in Israel's response.
At least part of the explanation of the electorate's move to the right in the recent election is a feeling that the peace process has gone nowhere, and that continued Israeli concessions will not end it well.
Now Avigdor Lieberman is at center stage. He is the foreign minister, and the point man in the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, telling the world that Israel must rethink the peace process. His announcement that decisions of the Annapolis Conference do not bind Israel insofar as the government never accepted them comes along with the prime minister's comments that it is wiser to invest in improving the Palestinian economy and governance than working toward the declaration of a Palestinian state.
Barack Obama has been prominent among world leaders in responding that the creation of a Palestinian state is the key to peace.
We do not know how this will end.
While thinking about it, however, it is helpful to recognize that President Obama and Foreign Minister Lieberman share some traits even while they differ in others. Obama's ascent to the presidency on the theme of Change is not all that different from Lieberman's claim to "tell it as it is." Both came to office from outside the establishment. Obama's racial traits were, arguably, about as far from the conventional in the United States as Lieberman's position in the community of more than one million Russian speakers who came to Israel in the most recent 15 years. Lieberman actually arrived earlier, in 1978, during a lull in immigration from the former Soviet Union. He reached the headlines as head of the prime minister's office during Netanyahu's first term, 1996-99. Subsequently, Lieberman entered the Knesset as founder and dominant figure in Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home). The party won 15 seats in the most recent election, and became the second largest party in Netanyahu's coalition.
Lieberman's comments may be no more important than a small stone thrown into a puddle. After the ripples reach the end of the puddle and bounce back toward the center, the puddle reverts to its previous condition.
Both Netanyahu and Lieberman are talking about continued efforts at reaching peace with the Palestinians, even while they say that it may take a while for the new government to define its postures in this and other matters.
Several things are likely to keep the ripples contained. Netanyahu has proved himself to be enough of a pragmatist so that he is not likely to break the rules of dependence on the big uncle. Also pragmatic are President Obama, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi, and other worthies who express themselves about Israel and Palestine. As such, they may recognize what Lieberman and Netanyahu are saying, even though their many political commitments keep them from saying it out loud, in public.
What can we expect?
Most likely, there will be further efforts at dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Arrangements at lower levels, between officials concerned with policing, water, and sewage may go more smoothly than conversations between elected politicians about the sensitive issues of borders and refugees.
There are efforts at violence. Occasionally an incident slips through the nets of Israeli intelligence and security. Commentators who claim to know say that Palestinians are helping to minimize violence less than in the past, perhaps reflecting the leadership's frustration at the lack of Israeli concessions. If recent history repeats itself, there may be an uptick in violence, perhaps even another intifada, accompanied by an uptick in Israeli response. Palestinians would be wise if they noticed what the IDF did in Gaza, but Palestinians are not always wise.
At the Seder and other get togethers during Passover, we are likely to argue about what may have happened 3,500 years ago, and what is likely to happen in the next six months.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem