Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bibi is Back

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Winston Churchill, who had famously spent the previous few years criticizing the British government's appeasement of Hitler, was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty (one of those overdone British titles that means he was in charge of the navy). Churchill had resigned from that same job in 1915, after the Dardanelles fiasco during World War I. The story has it that His Majesty's ships at sea were informed of Churchill's return to that position via a cable reading "Winston is back".

Well, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's absence from the office of prime minister of Israel was much shorter than that, but the message out of Jerusalem yesterday was that Bibi is back. Netanyahu became prime minister (an office in which he had served from 1996 to 1999) as head of a coalition government that, as expected, excludes the Kadima Party, the largest party in the Knesset, Israel's unicameral parliament, but includes parties two, three and four, his own Likud, as well as Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor.

Much has been said about those parties' various positions on peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as Netanyahu's coalition partners, have favored the so-called "two-state solution", that would create an independent Palestinian state in territories that Israel occupied after the Six-Day War of 1967. Netanyahu opposes that idea but, in light of his government's dependence on the support of the U.S. and of those Israeli parties, he apparently is not ruling it out.

But, regardless of which Israeli party has led the various coalition governments in recent years, there has been no significant progress on any peace plan. Israel has made two unilateral withdrawals, from Lebanon when Ehud Barak (the Labor leader who will continue as defense minister in the new government) was prime minister, and from the Gaza Strip by Ariel Sharon's government. Sharon's successor Ehud Olmert subsequently went to war in each of those zones.

Some critics of George Bush's policies on Palestine hope that President Obama and Secretary Clinton can successfully push for a two-state plan. American diplomacy might, for better or worse, be the decisive element.

And, in case you're wondering, Netanyahu's 10-year absence from the office of prime minister is not the longest such period in Israeli history. Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister from 1974 to 1977 when he was forced to resign as leader of the Labor Party, due to a financial scandal. Menachem Begin's Likud won a general election that year, and Shimon Peres became Labor's leader of the opposition.

Rabin was rehabilitated in 1992, after Peres had repeatedly failed to restore Labor to its previous dominant position. He again became prime minister when Labor finished first in a general election that year. So his period of exile was half-again as long as Netanyahu's.

No comments: