Tuesday, 22 January 2013

ISRAEL: The Election and the Future of Peace Process

Israelis have begun voting in general elections to pick a new parliament, with expectations for an easy win for right-wing incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And growing fears for a more right-wing new government and a remarkable feature of Israel's election campaign has been the way politicians on the left have shunned the peace slogans they passionately promoted in the salad days of the peace process.

Israeli polls indicate that a majority of seats in Israel's 120-member parliament will go to right-wing, pro-settler or Jewish ultra-Orthodox religious parties, with Netanyahu's Likud the largest among them. Netanyahu could comfortably form a coalition government with these parties, seen as his natural ideological allies.

The conflict with the Palestinians and the fate of the occupied lands, hotly debated in Israel for decades, were largely missing from Israeli political discourse this campaign season. The centrist Labor Party, which led peace talks with the Palestinians in the past, has shifted almost exclusively to domestic concerns, such as growing income gaps.

This Israeli campaign has thrown into stark relief the growing rift between how the world and how Israelis view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To the world, Israel faces a clear choice -- either go on ruling the Palestinians or meet their demand for independence. Israelis used to agree that this was indeed the dilemma -- in years past, it's what elections were fought over. Not anymore, though.

The Israeli's campaign that culminates on today's election, the idea of uprooting West Bank settlements, ending the 45-year military occupation, and making way for a Palestinian state has been pushed off center stage. It's now the preserve of marginal candidates in the multiparty electoral system, artist and intellectual types. A new idea has risen to take its place: More than ever, popular voices are calling for Israel to annex the bulk of the West Bank, which is the primary territory of a would-be Palestinian state.

Most of the opposition has seemingly given up on the peace process. Among mainstream candidates, only former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni runs on a peace platform -- but she undercuts her credibility by seemingly angling for a spot in the next government, which, barring the Messiah's arrival, will be led again by Netanyahu, only this time with an even more hard-line, anti-Arab supporting cast. Livni's party, at any rate, is sinking in the polls and is expected to have a negligible presence in the next Knesset.

The reasons for the Israeli peace camp's disintegration are clear. The bus bombings of the Second Intifada killed the public's belief in negotiations; then the rockets from Gaza that followed the 2005 "disengagement" from the strip killed their belief in unilateral withdrawal. As far as the Jewish majority is concerned, that leaves only one solution -- managing the conflict with military force. That is what Netanyahu has done, and he has been able to keep a lid on the situation -- in the four years of his term, Israelis have been almost untouched by political violence. They feel safe, which is more important than anything else -- including the future, which they feel they have no control over anyway.

But  also  Netanyahu's supposed change of heart, dating to his acclaimed 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, when he purportedly broke with a lifetime of opposition to Palestinian statehood by accepting it in principle. Since then , fatalism has taken place. Two states for two peoples was never part of [Likud's] election platform.

While no organized political opposition exists, some political figures have tried to make hay over Netanyahu's palpable disdain for cutting a deal with the Palestinians.

Israeli politics abhors a vacuum, especially during election season, so a new "solution" has been run up the flag pole -- annexation. This plan involves making "Area C" -- the patchwork of territory that makes up nearly 62 percent of the West Bank and surrounds the 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank -- a legal part of the state of Israel. The roughly 50,000 Palestinians living in Area C would be offered Israeli citizenship, including the right to vote.

As for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the remaining 38-plus percent of the West Bank, they wouldn't be offered Israeli citizenship -- but they would get "autonomy" and would be allowed to run their lives without overt interference from Israel. The Jewish state, however, would retain sovereignty over the area, including military control, just in case the Palestinians didn't go along with the program. As for the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, they would go on living under Israeli blockade, cut off from the West Bank.

Netanyahu is a milquetoast liberal among this crowd. The prime minister is not a member of the annexation camp -- it's inconceivable that he would provoke the international community in this way, especially when the world wouldn't recognize the annexation of the West Bank any more than it does Israel's annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

Palestinian officials largely view Benjamin Netanyahu's expected re-election with despair, fearing the Israeli hard-liner's ambitious plans for settlement construction over the next four years could prove lethal to their dreams of a state.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist