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Dare we dream? After seeing his conservative party alliance shrink from forty-two to thirty-one seats in last month’s elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now trying to put together a parliamentary majority. Did these losses chasten him? Will they lead to a real change in his policies? He has certainly made a splash with his first move. His selection of long-time political foe Tzipi Livni as justice minister and, more importantly, as head of the government’s official negotiating team (should negotiations ever resume) with the Palestinians, is being praised by some as a potentially important shift and dismissed by others as window dressing.

Livni began her career on the right, in Netanyahu’s Likud party, but moved leftward on the Palestinian issue and became one of the founding members of the centrist Kadima party in 2005, serving as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she headed the team that negotiated directly with the Palestinian Authority and, while it did not succeed, her team came far closer to a final peace agreement than Netanyahu’s government has thus far. Later Livni became head of Kadima before being ousted and leaving in 2012.

Last November she formed Hatnuah, another centrist party that included some from Kadima as well as two former leaders of the Labor Party. Hatnuah won six seats in the January election and has now become the first party to join Netanyahu’s coalition government. Upon her selection, Livni said that she wouldn’t be joining the government if she didn’t “trust” that Netanyahu was serious in his “commitment to the peace process.”

There are few issues more gut-wrenching to follow than the matter of Israel-Palestine. As a Jew, I feel a personal stake in Israel’s survival. As a historian (who teaches a class on the topic), I am well aware of the deeply held beliefs, opportunities for peace missed, and, yes, immoral actions taken by both sides. As an American, I know how important it would be for my country’s interests and security if the Israelis and Palestinians could come to a final peace agreement. And as a human being, I want suffering reduced whereever possible, and for people to be able to live their lives with dignity, justice, freedom, and security wherever possible.

Watching events unfold in Israel-Palestine in recent years has not given me much hope. Yet even after the anguish I felt hearing about Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, and after the Camp David talks in 2000 failed to produce an agreement, and after countless other disappointments and tragedies, I still can’t give up on the idea that these two peoples can make peace.

So that’s where I’m at when I think about what it means that the ultra-hawkish Netanyahu has turned over the “peace portfolio” to someone like Livni, who most observers see as far more committed to pursuing a peace treaty than the Netanyahu of recent years. Apparently, leaders of the Israeli settler movement think that Livni’s new position in the cabinet is a bad thing for their interests, and for Israel’s, as they define them. The far-right Jewish Home party — which rejects the idea of a Palestinian state — also hates Livni’s appointment. As someone who cares about that country, my thinking is that anything the settler leaders or the hard-right parties think is bad has a pretty good chance of being good for Israel. The reaction from Palestinian leaders to Livni’s appointment has been essentially mute, as they are clearly waiting to see the whole of Netanyahu’s coalition.

In Israel-Palestine, predicting the failure of peace talks has always been a safe bet. My head tells me that this is unlikely to change anytime soon, despite what I believe is Livni’s serious desire for a real deal, a desire I also believe is matched by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and moderate colleagues like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. As for my heart — well, it’s been broken enough times on this issue that I should know better. But despite this, and despite the fact that Livni joining the Israeli cabinet doesn’t change the fact that the Palestinians also bear responsibility for previous failures as well as the current stalemate, I have some rational basis for my hopes.

Perhaps Netanyahu has enough credibility on the right to actually bring reasonable hawks around to supporting the concessions necessary to make peace, to do what Nixon did in going to China and meeting with Chairman Mao. Netanyahu’s appointment of Livni to lead his negotiating team is at least a signal that he intends to make a serious effort on that front. By no means am I deeply optimistic. But at least I’m less pessimistic than I was before the elections. At this point, that’s real progress.

Cross-posted at In The Fray

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PS-Please check out my new book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, published by Potomac Books, where I discuss Barack Obama's ideas on racial, ethnic, and national identity in detail, and contrast his inclusive vision to language coming from Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh and (some) others on the right. You can read a review by DailyKos's own Greg Dworkin here.


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Originally posted to Ian Reifowitz on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 05:22 AM PST.

Also republished by Jews For President Obama.

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