Prospects of Peace Deal Fade As Israel Heads for Elections

By Julie Stahl | October 27, 2008 | 10:24 AM EDT

Jerusalem ( – Prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by the end of President Bush’s term are receding as Prime Minister designate Tzipi Livni says she cannot form a government.
Livni told Israeli President Shimon Peres on Sunday evening that she could not pull together enough coalition partners to form a government, something he asked her to do five weeks ago. She suggested that the country go to national elections. Peres has three days to decide what to do.
Livni said she is “willing to pay a certain price to form a government” but was not willing “to mortgage the economic and the political future of the State of Israel.”
Livni had enlisted the support of the leftwing Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but she didn’t manage to get the ultra-religious Shas party on board. Shas wanted an increase in governmental child allowances as well as a guarantee that the government would not discuss the status of Jerusalem in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been the head of a caretaker government since he resigned in early September following Livni’s election as head of Olmert’s Kadima party. That raised questions about his authority to continue in the U.S.-sponsored peace process.
As caretaker prime minister of a transitional government, Olmert is prime minister “100 percent,” said Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes. 
Nevertheless, Pordes told, according to legal rulings, such a caretaker government is not permitted to make “extreme decisions.”
What constitutes an “extreme decision” is not clearly defined but it would include things like opening up a major military operation in the Gaza Strip or introducing a major new economic plan, Pordes said.
Pordes said that while Olmert could continue to talk with the Palestinians it would not be acceptable for him to sign a peace agreement with them.
The peace process is not going anywhere until there is a new Israeli government, Pordes said, although Olmert can pass the baton on to the next Israeli prime minister and summarize his progress, he added.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv had no comment on Livni’s declaration. But repeated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s declaration to leave “no stone unturned” in pursuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle told that there was “no indication” that Livni’s call for early elections would stop the process that began at the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, last year.
On Monday, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as well as the Egyptian efforts to mediate reconciliation between Palestinian factions including Abbas’ Fatah and Hamas.
The Palestinian response to Livni’s announcement was cautious. They said that it does not matter who stands at the head of the Israeli government -- the Palestinians would work with whoever is elected. The goal of the Palestinians is peace with all Israelis, they said, according to Israel radio.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying that Livni’s announcement was a “severe blow” to Abbas and the Palestinians who believe in the peace process. But it proved that Hamas was right in saying that the peace process was a “waste of time.”
Abbas himself is under pressure from Hamas to call for Palestinian elections but he has pledged to stay in office at least another year.
According to Palestinian law, the president is elected for a four-year term. He took office four years ago in January following the death of former P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat. But the president is also supposed to be elected at the same time as the parliament, which would be a year away.
Both the Republican and Democratic Presidential Candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama have pledged their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and backed President Bush’s Annapolis process.
Analysts say that the candidate that would be “best” for Israel depends on the view one has as to what a better course is for Israel to take. McCain, they say, would be less likely than Obama to pressure Israel into a deal with the Palestinians.
But that may be a moot point after Israeli elections, which would probably take early next year.
For more than a year, opinion polls have shown that rightwing Binyamin Netanyahu Likud party would top other parties in Israeli elections.
Following Livni’s announcement two opinion polls showed Livni’s Kadima party slightly ahead. A Dahaf Research Institute poll showed Kadima winning 29 seats and the Likud 26 in the 120-seat Knesset. Another survey showed Kadima taking 31 seats to Likud’s 29.
Netanyahu is not a supporter of the Annapolis process. He does not believe that Abbas is a partner for peace and he wants to help the Palestinians build their economy before they even think about talking about peace.
Trouble on the ground
In related news, over the weekend, Jewish settlers vandalized a Muslim cemetery in Hebron and slashed the tires of 22 Palestinian cars after the Israeli army evacuated a nearby unauthorized outpost.
The episode was the latest in a growing number of Israeli settler attacks on Palestinian property.
Meanwhile Palestinian Authority deployed some 500 security officials in the West Bank city of Hebron over the weekend. About half of them had been trained in Jordan under a U.S.-sponsored program.
Israel agreed to the deployment last week as part of a U.S.-backed effort to strengthen Abbas’ rule in the West Bank.
But Jewish residents of Hebron, the largest West Bank city, expressed their concern over the deployment fearing that the Palestinians could one day turn on them. Spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community David Wilder said it was no comfort that the forces were trained in a U.S.-backed program as it would only help them to be better killers.