Israel is a country without a government. The coalition impasse is of little interest abroad, as it mostly centers on changing the rules allowing the ultra-orthodox to forego military service, the economy, and the inability of Israelis to get along with each other – particularly the politicians. And yet, out of this discord, a new kind of Israeli unity is emerging.
That unity has formed around the question of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. As that occupation nears completion of its 46th year, Israel’s major political parties are united in their disinterest in ending it. Yes, there is disagreement as to the method of expressing that disinterest, and there is a range of feeling that spans from apathy to distinct hostility, to the idea of freeing the Palestinians. But aside from the left-Zionist Meretz party, and the non-Zionist and Arab parties, not a single Israeli political party is interested in reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to bring together a broad coalition including ultra-orthodox religious parties in order to give the changes to the religious student draft exemption and some of his budget cuts more legitimacy. But if that doesn’t happen, he will probably form a four-party coalition consisting of his joint ticket of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah, which is the only party Netanyahu has signed up to date.
We have seen how Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu deals with the question of the Palestinians over the past four years. Their policy has been characterized by hostility and massive settlement expansion. Their behavior has brought increased international disapproval, fueled the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and got a stamp of disapproval from the Israeli public, not for the lack of peace, but for the hubris and obnoxiousness that has enhanced Israel’s pariah status.
The other parties offer little substantive relief. HaBayit HaYehudi explicitly opposes a peace agreement with the Palestinians, taking an even clearer stand than Likud-Beiteinu. Lapid, like Netanyahu, says he supports a two-state solution, but he has been outspoken about refusing to share Jerusalem, so the lip service he pays to peace just masks a non-starter.
Livni is the one major candidate whose campaign explicitly talked about reaching a deal with the Palestinians. Yet, in 2007, when she was Foreign Minister in the Ehud Olmert government, which was far more inclined than the current one to make peace with the Palestinians, she refused a Palestinian offer that not only gave Israel the territory it wanted in the West Bank and agreed that Palestinian refugees would only return to the new Palestinian state, but also agreed to let Israel keep most of its East Jerusalem settlements. Livni refused the offer out of hand. She proved that if she represents the chance for an agreement, that chance is zero.
But it doesn’t stop there. If those parties are the sum total of Netanyahu’s coalition, he will have 68 seats, with 52 in the opposition. Of those 52 seats, seven are held by Arab parties, and another four by the non-Zionist Communist party, Hadash. None of these parties will be able to affect policy toward the Palestinians. The bulk of the opposition is the Labor party and the two large ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Labor, the party of the Oslo peace process, was notably silent on the issue of the occupation during the election. While Labor’s leader, Shelly Yachimovitch, was harshly critical of Netanyahu’s handling of the Palestinian issue, she too focused on the international isolation. Labor’s platform called for resumption of negotiations within three months, but their defense document made no mention of peace or the removal of settlements. Labor’s second in command, Isaac Herzog explained the discrepancy by saying that the platform is a long-term plan, the defense document a shorter term one. Sounds like they expect the talks, if they do resume, to go on for a very long time.
Shas supports settlement expansion and opposes any sharing of Jerusalem. United Torah Judaism is largely indifferent to the Palestinian question, and generally goes along with the other ultra-orthodox parties on these matters. That leaves Meretz as the only party that has a substantial voice in Israeli politics (i.e., that is a Zionist party) and supports a sustainable peace with the Palestinians. Kadima ostensibly does as well, but we have seen, in the story about Livni who was in Kadima when she turned down the Palestinians’ Generous Offer, that they are not sincere about it. In any case, Meretz has only six seats, and Kadima only two.
So what is behind this broad consensus that wants talks only to get the world off Israel’s back, but shows no interest in actually concluding a peace deal? The factors have been made clear by Netanyahu, and the rest of the Israeli leadership. They are concerned about Iran, they are worried about Hezbollah. They are nervous about the situation in Syria, and they fear that Egypt is turning against them. Even Jordan is experiencing unrest. All of a sudden, there is not only the apocalyptic fear of an Iran nuke that Netanyahu has made sure Israelis feel. The threat of war between Israel and the Arab states that border it is more real than it has been at any time since the Yom Kippur War.
The key explanation, however, is the continuing self-delusion in Israel that these problems are all disconnected from the Palestinian question, and that resolving that issue would not have a significant impact on these other concerns. That has been a mantra of every Israeli leader since Ehud Barak went on his global “Blame the Palestinians” tour after the failure of the Camp David summit of 2000. And by and large, the Israeli people have bought into it. With the Palestinian Authority and Hamas making little progress toward reunifying, Israelis are given even more reason to doubt the value of concluding a peace deal.
That is the biggest concern that the current Knesset’s indifference toward the occupation raises. Israel is not the United States. Israeli leaders are not so far removed from their constituents that they can be easily bought off or convinced that their supporters want something they in fact do not. In a small country with multiple parties, politicians have to know what the party members, and their potential voters, think.
The welcome absence of attacks on Israeli civilians from the West Bank that has held for years (and is almost entirely due to the efforts of the Palestinian security forces, not the Israeli ones or the illegal wall that Israel built) has had the unhappy effect of robbing many Israelis of any sense of urgency about ending the occupation. Palestinians deprived of their rights are out of sight and out of mind. Gaza is only slightly more visible, with its largely ineffectual rockets doing little more than provoke the occasional large-scale retaliations from Israel.
And when Hamas doesn’t fire rockets, how does Israel respond? You can see it in this chart assembled by the British analyst, Ben White. Four Palestinians killed and 91 wounded in the period between the start of the cease fire until the one Grad rocket, which landed harmlessly, was fired into Israel. But in Israel, like the US, it was the rocket that shattered “the calm.”
The Knesset is, in this case, representing the view of the majority of Israelis. They still support the idea of a two-state solution. But they are not eager to see a Palestinian state any time soon, and have been convinced that it would make no difference in the growing security concerns that are overshadowing the occupation in their minds. So they elected a Knesset that reflects those views.
It is very possible that this stagnation will actually work in the Palestinians’ favor. The global BDS movement is gaining traction; the Palestinians have more tools, particularly access to the International Criminal Court, to pressure Israel; and Europe is biding its time for now as Netanyahu cobbles his coalition together. But its patience with Israeli foot dragging is thin. If the Palestinians can continue to show the world that it is Israel that is preventing progress, things could change.
On the other hand, if talks do start again and continue as they did before, without any changes on the ground, this could prove disastrous for all concerned. The reality is that Israel is living in a much more dangerous Arab world today than it has at any time since before the 1973 conflict. Its military dominance remains, but it has lost many of its regional allies, most notably Turkey. Its peace with Egypt and Jordan will be increasingly shaky as time goes on with no changes on the Palestinian ground.
These factors might eventually bring home the need to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. One must hope they will. Because there remains little appetite for substantive outside pressure on Israel from Europe, much less the United States. If Israel does not change its attitude in the face of some shifting local pressures, it may find it forced to change because the situation has exploded. That explosion could involve the broader region. And that is not a future that seems very appealing for anyone.