So, what do the elections “tell us”? Do Israelis want peace or not? This is the central question people abroad ask, but if anything, the Israeli elections tell us that, for the high majority of Israelis, the question is irrelevant. Who cares? Netanyahu’s party got less than a quarter of the vote, and the “center,” the largest “bloc,” about a third.
But “peace” was not a campaign issue for any of the parties, nor occupation (a term never used in mainstream Israeli discourse) or Arabs, the term Israeli Jews use for Palestinians within the 1967 borders and without (the three “Arab” parties got less than 10% of the vote). The fact that “security,” Israelis’ euphemism for keeping the Palestinians at bay, was not even an issue shows how far down the road of pacification and normalization of the Occupation Israelis feel they have gone. Once “the Arabs” fail to threaten us, they become a non-issue. And if anything, this was an election of non-issues – an assertive affirmation of neo-liberalism by a white middle-class for whom “social justice” means affordable housing for its own children.
Did Israelis “move” from the right to the center? Again, an irrelevant question. Except for the small if vocal ideological left and right and the ultra-orthodox religious, most Israelis have always been in the center, in a place where a determined effort to achieve normality and an American standard of living breaks through whenever pressing security concerns abate. In fact, this is the essence of the deal struck between Israeli political leaders and the public: if you bring us personal security, normalcy and a rising quality of life, we will vote for you – and we don’t care how you do it. Most Israeli Jews were never really right-wing in their political views; they never bought into the Greater Land of Israel ideology of Begin, Sharon and Netanyahu. The ideological settlers represent only about one percent of Israelis; 90% of those living across the Green Line are there for economic reasons and would willing move back into Israel if their quality of life did not suffer. And so the mainstream voted against Peres in the wake of the Hamas bus bombings of 1996, voted overwhelmingly for Barak in 1999 when they thought the two-state solution would finally bring peace (or rather, quiet and normalcy) and, just a year later, they bolted for Sharon, a seemingly 180° turn, after the second Intifada broke out and he promised to break Palestinian resistance forever. In the view of the Israeli Jewish public Sharon succeeded in doing just that in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and ever since they have voted “right,” not out of ideological conviction but for those who could deliver personal security. As that concern dwindled over the past decade (2012 was the first year since 1973 in which no Israeli civilian died in an attack in the Occupied Territory), priorities shifted. Now economic well-being was what politicians had to deliver– and hence the rise of the neo-liberal “center”.
Why, then, haven’t Israelis simply voted for a government that would genuinely end the Occupation and bring them peace, and with that personal security and economic prosperity? Three main reasons. First, for generations Israeli Jews have been convinced by their political leaders right and left that peace with “the Arabs” is impossible. The Arabs are our permanent enemies, goes the line, or in more popular terms, you can’t trust the Arabs. Though deeply embedded in the Israeli Jewish psyche, it is possible to overcome this way of thinking. After all, two-thirds or more of the Israeli Jewish public – up to 80% of Israelis if its Palestinian citizens are factored in – supported the Oslo peace process. Only three weeks ago a poll showed that the majority of Israelis who vote for the right support a two-state solution, at least in principle. True, this is very much “in principle,” since Israeli Jews, with little knowledge of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territory, have no clear idea of what a genuine two-state solution would actually entail (the relinquishing of East Jerusalem, the large settlement blocs or Hebron, for example). But it does demonstrate, however, that Israelis are not ideologically dedicated to the Occupation, and in the right circumstances, be it a combination of good Israeli and Palestinian leadership or strong outside pressures, they could be induced to give it up.
Fearing this for reasons of their own, then, successive Israeli governments have rendered a genuine peace impossible by laying massive “facts on the ground” over the Occupied Territory that have raised the stakes to a point where the concessions necessary to create a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state are impossible to imagine. When you consider that a Labor Defense Minister (Barak) refused to remove five settler families from a blatantly illegal and strategically superfluous “outpost” and sought retroactive approval for 100 other illegal outposts, can anyone envision the evacuation of 45,000 Israelis from Ma’aleh Adumim or a full 250,000 from East Jerusalem? Indeed, a consensus exists among parties from the extreme right to Labor (and even Meretz to a considerable degree) that the “settlement blocs” – the Jordan Valley, virtually emptied of Palestinian farmers, the Ariel, Modi’in and Hebron blocs, and “Greater” Jerusalem – must remain in Israeli hands no matter what, effectively forecloses any contiguous and viable Palestinian state.
Finally, as the election demonstrates, Israelis have no motivation to end the “Occupation” (most Israeli Jews would put quotation marks around that dubious word). It does not affect their daily lives, and just as important, it does not affect their ability to achieve economic prosperity. The first decision of the leaders of the social justice protests in the summer of 2011 was to exclude all reference to the Occupation, which was considered a “divisive” issue and not integral to social justice within Israel – a position the Labor Party explicitly restated during the election campaign. In fact, as the laboratory where arms, homeland security devices and other high-tech technologies are developed and marketed, it could be argued that a prosperous Israeli economy depends upon continued occupation.
In the end, the Israeli Jewish public will not be a fatal obstacle to a negotiated solution, if that solution embodies two states. But neither will it be pro-active, rising up to overthrow the Occupation. Israelis have learned to accommodate to it and can live with that non- to-semi-issue for another 65 years. Only determined international pressures will move intransigent Israeli governments, but if that happens the Israeli pubic will come along.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the two-state solution is dead, buried under settlements and infrastructure too massive and interlinked with Israel to detach, especially given the lack of will among international governments, led by the US and Germany, to exert the pressures on Israel needed to force such massive concessions. But the international community will not move beyond the two-state solution unless prodded – virtually forced – by us, the international civil society. We have the wind to our back. Over the years we have collectively transformed the Palestine issue into one of the world’s great causes, at the level of the anti-apartheid struggle. But we must show the way. Led by our Palestinian partners into envisioning a new solution more just and more do-able, with the input of their critical Israeli counterparts and their international supporters – some version of a one-state solution or regional confederation – we will have to overcome the irrelevancies of both Israeli and international politics. If the Israeli election “tells us” anything, it is that the ball is in our court.