Analysis

Where is the peace process in the Israeli elections? By BICOM Director of Research Dr. Toby Greene

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Scepticism among the electorate and the rising social agenda mean the peace process is notable by its absence in the campaigns of many candidates, but the future of the territories is never far below the surface. 

There was a time when the question of what to do with the territories captured in 1967 was the key issue defining Israeli politics. As recently as 2006, Ehud Olmert and Kadima were elected on the promise that they would continue the process begun with the Gaza disengagement in 2005 of withdrawing from Palestinian population areas to secure Israel as a democratic Jewish majority state. Still today, pollsters categorise parties in ‘right’ or ‘centre-left’ blocks, broadly according to their position on the Palestinian issue.

In the current campaign however, for most candidates, the peace process is like an embarrassing uncle at a family wedding. You can’t avoid having it around somewhere in the background, but most people would rather ignore it, or only deal with it when they have to, out of politeness.

Scepticism among the voters

Is this because Israelis have lost all interest in peace? Not exactly. A survey conducted at the end of December confirmed that two-thirds of Israelis would accept a two-state solution if it meant peace. Even a majority of Likud voters agreed. Repeated surveys also show that most Israelis also want to see negotiations taking place with the Palestinian Authority.

The problem is that most Israelis consider the prospects for success in peace talks to be slim. The way they see it, Ehud Olmert in 2008 and Ehud Barak in 2000 offered the Palestinians a reasonable deal and they didn’t take it. Even when Israel got out of the Gaza Strip unilaterally the Palestinians weren’t satisfied, bringing Hamas to power and using the area to fire more rockets at Israel.

They ask themselves, ‘if we get out of the West Bank will there be peace?’ Or will there be, as Netanyahu warns, the possibility of a ‘third Iranian base’ on Israel’s borders, after Hezbollah controlled south Lebanon and the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip? Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority’s disinterest in negotiating with Netanyahu, and preference for unilateralism at the UN, has played into the hands of those Israelis who argue that there is no Palestinian partner.

Dragging the peace process onto the agenda

Very few players in the current election seem at all interested in grasping this embarrassing uncle by the hand and pulling him onto the dance floor.

The most notable exception is former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, running at the head of ‘Hatnua’, (The Movement) a new party she has created. Of all the candidates competing in the Jewish, secular, Zionist centre-ground, she is the one most prepared to make the peace process a central part of her offer. She led Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians in 2008, and she is the one arguing that Israel should make every effort to resume final status talks in the belief that it’s possible to finish the job.

Her main rivals for votes in the centre, whilst making clear they favour a two-state solution, are focussing their attention on other issues which they hope are more unifying. Labour, the traditional standard bearer of the peace process, is focussing on socio-economic issues under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, hoping to build on the momentum of the 2011 social protest movement. Meanwhile telegenic former journalist Yair Lapid has staked his ground on political reform, shifting power away from minority sectors, and ending ultra-Orthodox exemptions from the military draft. These candidates are focussing on social issues and not the peace process for sound electoral reasons, in that the peace process has a huge credibility problem, is highly divisive, and threatens to put off many voters.

Even the avowedly left-wing Meretz has allowed the peace process to drift somewhat into the background. Although they have proposed a four point peace plan based on the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state, it is not central in their campaign. The party’s main appeal to the electorate is focussed on the premise that voting Meretz is the surest way to vote against a Netanyahu government, since there is no chance Meretz will enter a Netanyahu-led coalition.

The only other significant player who has actively tried to bring the peace process into the election is not himself a candidate, but is Israel’s veteran president, and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres. President Peres, like Livni, believes that it is possible to make a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, and in a speech to Israeli ambassadors on 30 December he made a point of saying so, attracting criticism from the Likud Beitenu campaign for breaching his political neutrality.

In theory Peres should act as an apolitical and unifying figure, something like the Queen. But as Yitzhak Rabin’s former chief of Staff Eitan Haber wrote recently, ‘What did those who elected Shimon Peres as president of the State of Israel think? That he would limit himself to taking part in a mezuzah hanging ceremony?’

Room for the right to fill the void?

So what do the candidates on the right have to say about the peace process? In Netanyahu’s case, as little as possible. The positions adopted by Netanyahu over the last four years – accepting the idea of a two-state solution in principle whilst sceptical of the Palestinians in practice ­– place him well to the left of the average Likud candidate or activist and more in line with the average voter. Likud’s electorate is a mix of right-leaning centrist voters who would ultimately favour a two-state solution, and those who are ideologically opposed to giving up land altogether.

Talking about the peace process makes it hard for Netanyahu to hold on to both constituencies, and so he has avoided doing so. This has left the field open for the more right-wing candidates on the Likud-Beitenu list to talk up their opposition to the two-state solution. The most right-wing of all, Moshe Feiglin, has even proposed paying Palestinian families $500,000 to leave the West Bank, a position regarded as extreme by most.

When pressed, Netanyahu has stood by his 2009 ‘Bar Ilan speech’ in which he endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state. But he is offering no proposal on breaking the deadlock. The Israeli public, deeply sceptical, wary of taking risks given the regional turmoil, and fresh with the memory of Hamas rockets reaching Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are not demanding one from him. With a host of security and economic threats facing the state in a time of regional and global chaos, Netanyahu’s strategy is to offer experience and stability, not dramatic new initiatives.

However, Naftali Bennett, the young and energetic leader of the right-wing Habayit Yehudi party, is exploiting Netanyahu’s efforts to remain in the centre and chipping away at Netanyahu’s right-wing base. Bennett too is more interested in talking about ‘Jewish values’ and social issues that the Palestinians, but when prompted, he is happy to launch into an explanation of his own plan for the West Bank. This would see Israel annex Area C, the 60% of the territory that currently remains under full Israeli control, burying the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. He also caused a storm at the end of December by telling an interviewer he would personally not obey an order to evacuate a settlement, a position he then backed away from. The Bennett Plan itself is not taken with great seriousness by mainstream voters, but with the lack of alternatives, his candidacy at least enjoys an air of freshness.

The peace process will be back

The relative lack of attention being paid to the peace process is deceptive. Much like the embarrassing uncle getting drunk at the bar, the peace process will not go away, and the US and EU will ratchet up pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to make progress once a new Israeli government is formed. With a renewed mandate, Netanyahu may well seek to improve Israel’s diplomatic standing with some moves in the Palestinian arena. However, passing a budget and addressing the Iranian threat will nonetheless be top of the agenda for whoever is sitting around the cabinet table when a new Israeli government is formed.