Israeli Jews are deeply sceptical, even incredulous, about the peace process, and are instead focused on maintaining security, argues Jonathan Rynhold of Bar-Ilan University. Nonetheless, the composition of the next coalition will play a major role in determining Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians going forward, especially regarding changes to the reality on the ground in the West Bank and in the use of strengthening regional cooperation against Iran to make progress on the peace track.
Israel has no foreign policy, only a defence policy with international implications. Moshe Dayan
Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. Henry Kissinger
The Palestinian issue is no longer central to elections
For many years, the conflict with the Palestinians was central to Israeli elections. Candidates vigorously debated the rights and wrongs of the Oslo process, Palestinian statehood, settlements, unilateral withdrawals and various peace plans. To win the election, a party would have to present a judicious mixture of policies designed to promote both peace and security in order to win over that part of the electorate that oscillates between the Left and the Right. In 2019 however, the candidates are not talking much about these issues. Indeed the Centre and the Left seem to be trying very hard to avoid talking about them. In any case, the public is not particularly interested.
As far as the overwhelming majority of Israelis are concerned, there is no chance of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians or what is left of Syria in the medium term. About half of all Israelis still support a two-state solution in principle, but even among the dwindling number who still identify as ‘Left’, about half share this pessimistic assessment.
Belief in a negotiated peace disintegrated in 2000, with the onset of the Second Intifada characterised by unprecedented levels of suicide bombings and Arafat’s rejection of the Clinton Parameters, which would have given the Palestinians a state encompassing almost all of the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Arab East Jerusalem and control over the Temple Mount. Abbas’s rejection of a similar peace plan put forward by Olmert in 2008 and again by the Obama Administration in 2014, reinforced this scepticism. It also dealt a massive blow to the Left’s political brand in Israel, from which it is yet to recover.
Meanwhile support for unilateral Israeli initiatives collapsed in 2006. Following unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, the Israeli public was bombarded with thousands of missiles launched from those areas by Hamas and Hezbollah. After 400,000 Israelis had to be evacuated from their homes in the north during the Second Lebanon War, and the Israeli town of Sderot, adjacent to Gaza, became the bomb-shelter capital of the world, Israelis had had enough. A majority had supported the evacuation of all 8000 settlers from Gaza, but subsequently opinion shifted. The underlying sentiment among the public can be summed up thus: why should ‘middle Israel’ drag thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank out of their homes and in exchange face thousands of rockets directed at their own homes within the pre-1967 boundaries?
The consensus in Israel has become deeply sceptical, even incredulous, about the peace process and all its ‘diplomatic paraphernalia’. Instead, Israelis are focused on maintaining security. Here again there is a consensus. While the 1982 Lebanon War and the First Intifada were politically contentious, all of Israel’s military campaigns fought since the collapse of the Oslo Process have received very wide support with the only debate being over the wisdom of the tactics employed (on the strategic level it is accepted that there is no choice but to engage in combat for the foreseeable future).
Netanyahu is seen as a safe pair of hands
For the last decade, Netanyahu has consistently been viewed by a plurality of the public as by far the most suitable candidate to be Prime Minister, even as a majority have been dissatisfied with many aspects of his performance. The key to his success has been the public’s sense that he is a safe pair of hands in the security realm and perception that there is no one else who could do a better job. Relatively speaking, his term in office has been marked by short, limited conflicts with a low level of terrorism and Israeli causalities. In addition, Netanyahu is seen as having an excellent relationship with Israel’s most important ally, the United States and a significant degree of influence over the Trump Administration. Israelis also give Netanyahu high marks for signs of improvement in Israel’s relations with the Gulf States; relations which include the Prime Minister’s visit to Oman and the playing of Hatikva at a Judo competition in the UAE. A majority believe it is possible to normalise these relations without making concessions to the Palestinians, even though this is highly unlikely.
Netanyahu does deserve credit for the way he has carefully managed the conflict with Hamas. Much of the Israeli public however, is unaware of the deep damage Netanyahu has wrought to Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party in the US. As both AIPAC and the Israeli security community have long understood, bipartisan support for Israel is a foundation of the special relationship. Democrats have had their policy disagreements with various Israeli governments, but this did not affect the fact that they continued to sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of about 2:1. According to the respected polling organisation, Pew, that margin has almost disappeared. Analysis of the data indicates clearly that this is primarily due to the perception of the Prime Minister as siding with the Republicans against Obama and being in favour of President Trump. This is not the only cause of Israel’s troubled relations with the Democrats, but it is the most important.
Moreover, despite their close relationship, Trump could still undermine Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition, if, as members of the Administration have indicated, the President presents his peace plan soon after the April 9 elections. The plan will almost certainly involve concessions that will divide the Israeli Right leaving Netanyahu in a difficult position. Open praise for the plan would splinter the Right, while open criticism would likely destroy his personal relationship with Trump and bury any chance he would have of including centre or centre-right parties.
New competition for the ‘Mr Security’ title
In any case, there is now a genuine conversation and debate over which leader and which party is best able to handle the challenges to Israeli security. Netanyahu and the Likud have lost their trump card. The Blue and White party is headed by a former Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, and its leadership includes two other Chiefs of Staff in Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe ‘Bogie’ Yaalon, who also served as Defence Minister under Netanyahu. This could become a particularly pertinent factor if things heat up on the Gaza border.
Ultimately the question is whether this security triumvirate has the political nous to translate their military credentials into political victory against Israel’s most successful politician since David Ben-Gurion.
If all they accomplish is becoming the largest party by hoovering up votes that would have gone to other centre and left parties, they will fail. Being the largest party in the Knesset is certainly a factor in determining who forms the government, but ultimately it is the party that can best command a majority in the Knesset that forms the government. Given the Right and religious parties open hostility to serving under Ganz, in order to win, Blue and White will have to peel away votes from the Right-religious bloc in order to shift the coalition dynamics in their favour. Even a shift of two or three seats moving from Right to Centre could make all the difference.
The potential for progress towards regional normalisation and the two-state solution
Finally, just because the campaign is not about Israeli-Palestinian affairs, does not mean the result of the election is irrelevant to the future direction of the conflict. The nature of the next coalition will play a major role in determining Israel’s policy going forward.
Twice in the last five years, Israel has been close to a breakthrough in relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states; once in the summer of 2014 when the Mossad took charge of the talks and again in 2016, when Netanyahu and then Labour opposition leader Isaac Herzog, came to an agreement in principle to form a national unity government. On both occasions Netanyahu backed out at the last minute, citing pressure from the Right.
Driven by the need to come together to face the increased level of threat emulating from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have dramatically shifted their position towards Israel by lowering the price for moves towards normalisation, in terms of economic relations, public meetings and more. These states are now willing to take more significant steps towards normalisation prior to a final status deal with the Palestinians, well beyond the small public steps taken so far. In return, they would expect Israeli moves that demonstrably advance the future prospects of Palestinian independence, such as expanding the territory under Palestinian civilian control in Area C of the West Bank and ending the expansion of settlements outside the major blocs, most of which would likely be incorporated into Israel as part of a territorial swap in any permanent status peace treaty.
This window of opportunity is still open, though it is impossible to know for how long. What is clear from experience is that a right-wing coalition would be opposed to such moves. On the other hand, a centrist coalition led by Ganz would be in favour. Even one of the more hawkish leaders of Blue and White, Yaalon, has written favourably about the key aspects of this package. While interim moves of this kind might appear to be relatively insignificant compared to the media extravaganza of the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, they could well be of fateful long-term importance. They would tilt the reality on the ground in the West Bank in the direction of partition – the two-state solution – without threatening Israeli security. Indeed, it would bolster security by strengthening regional cooperation against Iran. It might even restore some hope among Israelis and Palestinians that peace is possible.