A lesson in Middle East politics

JERUSALEM — It’s never easy to get politicians to agree. When they’re Middle East politicians, forget about it.

That’s why the current coalition negotiations in Israel and the haggling over a so-called “unity government” among the Palestinians are so unedifying. It’s fair to say that everyone involved in these talks has so far made choices guaranteed to play badly on the international stage.

The major decisions are bad enough. Israel’s Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu intends to offer the post of foreign minister to Avigdor Lieberman, whose international image is, to say the least, hardline. The only member of the Palestinian government in whom international aid donors have even a shred of true confidence has been forced to resign (temporarily, he says) to soothe the Islamists of Hamas.

But the smaller stories are just as bemusing. Defense Minister Ehud Barak led Labor, historically Israel’s chief party and lately at least the second-biggest bloc in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), to fourth place in the Feb. 10 election with only 13 out of 120 parliamentary seats. Time to eschew the ministerial staffs and drivers, to rebuild while in the opposition, said his party colleagues. Well, Barak murmured, OK, unless Netanyahu offers me the defense ministry again…

Netanyahu is being forced toward a narrow right-wing coalition. He’s likely to have only 61 seats — a majority of one. That’ll leave him open to the kind of coalition blackmail at which Israeli politicians excel. It’s what brought him down at the end of his first term as prime minister in 1999.

The coalition is so narrow because Netanyahu doesn’t want to include the really right-wing parties (they want new settlements in the West Bank, and the U.S. won’t stand for that) and because centrist Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni would rather let him sweat over an unworkable selection of partners. She banks on one of them bolting before too long. In new elections, she wouldn’t be tainted by the likely ineffectiveness that will cling to a desperate Netanyahu.

Up the road in Ramallah, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned last week. He was appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas violently kicked their opponents in the Fatah Party out of Gaza in 2007. Trouble is, Hamas held the prime minister’s job back then and they’ve always maintained that Fayyad, an independent, was illegitimate.

Try telling that to the international community. After years of sending Palestinian aid into a black hole of corruption, they finally had a prime minister trained in the West (a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin) who understood financial transparency. In other words, here’s a receipt for your billions of dollars and here are some documents to show you how it was spent.

Fayyad argues that he’ll be back once Fatah and Hamas have agreed on a unity government that would end their bloody two years of internecine strife. He’d better be, because the U.S. and other donors sent messages last week through diplomatic intermediaries that if Fayyad isn’t prime minister, the Palestinians can rebuild Gaza on their own.

All this is more troubling because it’s such a key moment of opportunity in the Middle East. Hillary Clinton made her first visit here as U.S. secretary of state last week, promising deep engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the new Obama administration. At a conference in Egypt last week, international donors promised $4.5 billion in aid to rebuild Gaza.

But there’s no new Israeli government for Clinton to talk to, and the aid money won’t flow until the Palestinians have manufactured some kind of political fig-leaf to disguise the fact that Hamas controls Gaza. Neither track is moving fast.

Why? Because of the egos involved. Take Ehud Barak.

Soon after arriving in Israel in 1996, I realized that most of the myths about Israeli politicians popular in the West represent the exact opposite of their standing among Israelis. Golda Meir, for example, is quite a hero in the U.S., as a feisty woman, a symbol of the plucky young Jewish state’s fight to preserve its independence. In Israel? Golda’s a bum whose arrogance as prime minister led to the near-destruction of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

So, too, with Ehud Barak. In the West, you read about Israel’s most decorated soldier, a special ops genius who went undercover as an Arab woman to penetrate PLO headquarters in Beirut, a techie who can dismantle and reassemble Swiss watches and play Prokofiev on the piano.

But to Israelis the sheen long ago wore off. As prime minister, Barak led them into the intifada and failed to find a way to persuade Arafat to rein in the killing. (At one press conference in 2000, I heard him tell Arafat he had 48 hours to stop the violence. I waited for the “or else,” but it didn’t come. Arafat, who was a canny fellow to put it mildly, must’ve been splitting his sides.) Voters gave Barak the bum’s rush at the first opportunity.

Many close to Barak come to see him as something of a dysfunctional character, despite his image as a strategic genius. Aides have told me how, as prime minister, Barak would sit in his office or hotel suite playing solitaire on a computer, while foreign guests waited outside for scheduled appointments. The mayor of Jerusalem tried to set a meeting with Prime Minister Barak, but was put off for six months. Senior ministers used to hang around his bureau for days trying to get a few words with him. The first time I met him, he stared at his desk and barely spoke.

Netanyahu is courting Barak because he wants a defense minister who is seen as a moderate by Western leaders. Israeli commentators note that there can’t be much of that moderate image left after Barak oversaw the January assault that flattened Gaza.

Barak might not have much else to bring much else to the table. Only a handful of Labor’s 13 parliamentarians are willing to enter the government with him. The rest demand that the party sit in opposition and rebuild its image as an alternative to the right wing.

Of course, there’s no sign they can agree on exactly what sort of an alternative they ought to provide. They are politicians, after all, and this is the Middle East. 

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