Mrs Livni's brave election gamble

 

TZIPI LIVNI, the leader of Israel's Kadima party in the Knesset, has chosen fresh elections rather than an unsustainable compromise. It is a courageous decision. "I wasn't ready to mortgage the future of Israel," she said, rejecting an agreement with the ultra-orthodox Jewish Shas party, which refuses to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians. Elections will be held next year, some 21 months early.

Mrs Livni has come a long way, as foreign minister under the departing Ehud Olmert, towards accepting the need for a two-state settlement, so as to preserve Israel's future. She now faces the daunting task of winning an electoral mandate to negotiate that outcome against a strong right wing which rejects such a settlement as much too far a step. Given the growing disenchantment among Palestinians about the long delay in reaching a settlement, and the increasingly disadvantageous conditions on offer, this may be the last chance for Israeli voters to decide clearly in its favour.

Opinion polls have consistently found Israelis support such a settlement much more than their actual voting preferences would lead one to believe. That gap opens up real opportunities for political leadership, based on real alternatives. Mrs Livni's background in the rejectionist Zionist camp makes it all the more significant that she has moved so much towards accepting the need for a two-state settlement.

She and Mr Olmert made substantial progress towards that objective in their recent negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. In accepting that Jerusalem must be part of a settlement she acknowledges this, even though she adamantly resists another Palestinian demand - that exiles should have a right of return. Nor has she decisively parted company with Kadima founder Ariel Sharon's brutally imposed solution based on existing boundaries and continuing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

That is no basis for a sustainable settlement, since it could not command enduring support from Palestinians in the West Bank, let alone those in Gaza currently ruled by the rejectionist Hamas movement. The longer the impasse continues the more Palestinians are likely to be drawn to an alternative proposal, one state combining Jews and Palestinians, which would see an end to a specifically Jewish entity. Right-wing parties believe Israel must resist both proposals by force if necessary. If Mrs Livni is to remain true to the conviction which led her to reject an unprincipled coalition incapable of delivering a settlement with the Palestinians she will need to spell this out unambiguously in the forthcoming campaign.

This summer she welcomed as potentially historic an Arab League peace plan offering full regional recognition of Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land occupied since the 1967 war. She said this offer is an opportunity not to be missed by Israeli negotiators - and so it is. Instead of reacting defensively to right-wing parties she should spell out how this opportunity can and should be taken before it is too late.