By Jane Harman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jane Harman is director, president and chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was a nine-term congresswoman from California and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006. The views expressed are her own.
Israel’s surprising election result gives its wing-clipped prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, an opportunity to shift to the center. This option was available to him four years ago when he outmaneuvered Tzipi Livni to form a majority in the Knesset. But he chose instead to move to the right.
Now comes a reset moment. Israel’s economy is fragile, with housing prices soaring and the middle class squeezed. A majority of the mostly secular Jewish population also resents special deals cut with the ultra-Orthodox to shield them from compulsory service in the military and to provide them with benefits not available to others.
The candidates that focused on those issues – the centrist Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and the pro-settlement Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett – received the enthusiastic support of the public. Indeed, the mandate was clear: share the burden.
But it’s not just the economy, stupid. This is in fact a double reset opportunity. Although the Israeli-Palestinian peace process wasn’t the focal point of this campaign (only 18 percent of voters cited negotiations with the Palestinians as the most important issue), most Israelis do still favor a two-state solution. Indeed, a poll last month found that 67 percent of Israelis would support an agreement based on the 1967 borders, including a divided Jerusalem between the two states, with only 21 percent opposed. Even 57 percent of supporters of the Likud and Jewish Home parties said they would support such a deal.
Unfortunately, many Israelis no longer believe peace is achievable – at least in the immediate future. But help may be on the way if Israel’s new coalition includes parties open to a deal.
That help comes in two forms. First, the expected confirmation of Senator John Kerry as secretary of state provides an experienced hand with deep personal connections in the Middle East. He has known Netanyahu for 25 years, and their relationship is solid. He also knows and regularly visits Israel’s Arab neighbors. A trip to the region by him shortly after his confirmation could rekindle the focus on negotiations. It could also set up an overdue follow-on trip by President Obama to Israel and her neighbors.
A second source of help is the reported efforts by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. Notwithstanding muscular street demonstrations by the Hamas leadership in Gaza recently, Hamas is weakened by the loss of its safe haven in Syria. Egypt wants to reassert leadership in the region and got serious respect for brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza late last year. Bringing a unified Palestinian delegation to the peace table would be a major achievement – and a blunt prod to Israel, which worries that Egypt could abandon their peace treaty.
Without a two state solution, both sides lose. Israel loses its legitimacy as a Jewish democracy once the youth bulge in the Palestinian population within its borders becomes a majority. And Palestinians – who have made bad leadership choices but have also been pawns in a local and regional power game – lose out, once again, on the opportunity for peace and prosperity.
As Woodrow Wilson once said, “There are many voices of counsel, but few voices of vision.” As Bibi puts together his new coalition, he would be wise to remember that advice and create a team with the foresight to make sure Israel isn’t one day the biggest loser.
Will Bibi seize the mantle of peacemaker that eluded his predecessors like Rabin, Sharon, and Barak? Only he knows.
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