Israel’s Elections and the Rise of the Annexationist Right. Time for Europe to present a common peace proposal
Andrea Dessì 21 January 2013

Given the momentous events sweeping the Middle East one might have thought that Israel’s election campaign be dominated by discourse about the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, the Palestinians or even Iran, Netanyahu’s number-one policy obsession for some time now. Instead much of the discourse among centrist parties has been about socio-economic issues while on the right the rise of the Jewish Home party, a nationalist and religious party with links to Israel’s settler movement, has pushed official political discourse into increasingly uncharted waters with calls of abandoning the two-state framework and annexing Israeli settlements gaining ground. Talk of the Palestinians has been limited to people not actually running in the campaign, such as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, and only Tzipi Livni, former Foreign Minister and now leader of the Hatnu’a (‘The Movement’) party, has now and then called for a concerted government effort to salvage the two-state framework. Her proposals, however, have appeared somewhat vague and outdated and have not resulted in any significant show of public support.

Meanwhile further on the right, the Habayit Hayehudi (‘Jewish Home’) party, led by Naftali Bennett, no doubt the rising star of this election, has presented a plan that calls for the outright annexation to Israel of 60 percent of the West Bank thereby finally burying the two-state framework, which he has publicly disavowed numerous times. Bennet’s party, founded in 2008, is projected to become Israel’s third largest party in the Knesset and is polled to win between 12 and 16 seats, putting it close behind the Labor party (16-17) but far from the Likud-Beiteinu alliance (32) in the 120 seat Knesset. Netanyahu, who has merged his Likud party with the Yisrael Beiteinu party led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, faces a choice as to whether join forces with Bennett’s national-religious party in a governing coalition, thereby forming a solidly right-wing government. This scenario seems ever more likely given Labor’s public vow not to enter into a coalition with Netanyahu, but would no doubt create problems for Israel’s foreign allies who would find it hard to engage with such a government in the context of a renewed effort on the peace process that is expected to materialize sometime in 2013.

For Israel’s Arab citizens – over 20 percent of the population – the elections have underscored those feelings of disillusionment and not belonging that have long been associated with the politics of Israel’s Arab minority. Polls have indicated that about half of the Arab population does not intend to vote notwithstanding calls from a handful of Israeli Arab politicians, and the Arab League, not to boycott. After all, no Arab party has ever been in an Israeli ruling coalition to govern the county, further entrenching these feelings of marginalization.

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who tried (and failed) to run a campaign primarily on social and economic issues, attempting to revive the spirit of Israel’s 2011 social protests, has so far said little on the topic of settlements, the peace process or, God forbid, Hamas and Gaza. Labor has been in talks with Livni’s party, and that of former TV presenter Yair Lapid called Yesh Atid to explore the possibility of creating a centrist opposition alliance in the Knesset following the election. No official agreements have been reached however, as each party, and especially that of Yair Lapid, are keeping their options open and not ruling out the possibility of joining a Netanyahu-run coalition. In the event that a centrist alliance is indeed formed in parliament, this could represent the one welcomed development to emerge from Israel’s 2013 elections, given that organized opposition to the Netanyahu-led government has been all but nonexistent since his election in 2009.

For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Israel’s election seems to further confirm that Israeli society is moving away from the idea of peace and the sacrifices needed to achieve it. Leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, severely undermined by Israel’s refusal to release $100 million a month in tax revenue it collects on their behalf, are struggling to retain the last remnants of the PA’s crumbling authority in the West Bank. The PA’s political legitimacy has all but dissipated due to the lack of elections for over three years and regional events have visibly strengthened the fortunes of its rival Hamas in Gaza. Reconciliation talks between the two factions have resumed, under regional pressure from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, and there appears today to be a greater willingness by both sides to seek a rapprochement. Talks aim to implement the stalled reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo in early May 2011 which was supposed to appoint an independent government – headed by Mahmud Abbas, the current PA President – and charged with setting the stage for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. All Palestinian factions have now entered into a pledge to hold these elections in 2013. The Fatah-dominated PA, however, is deeply worried about the possibility of Hamas expanding its influence in the West Bank and is desperate for some semblance of a diplomatic breakthrough as a means to prove that negotiations and not armed struggle is still the best means to advance Palestinian rights vis-à-vis Israel.

Diplomatic advances are not forthcoming, however, and for all intents and purposes since Netanyahu’s election in 2009 his government has done all that is in its power to undermine the chances of holding fruitful dialogue with the Palestinians. His own finance minister has admitted that the government has quietly doubled state funding for settlements in the West Bank, and a recent Peace Now report has shown how under Netanyahu settlement construction has boomed to new levels, both in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For his part, Netanyahu has publicly stated during the campaign that he has no intention of dismantling settlements if reelected. Following calls by high-ranking party official’s to omit any reference to Netanyahu’s 2009 endorsement of a demilitarized Palestinians state from the party platform, the Likud-Beiteinu alliance has simply refrained from even publishing one for the 2013 elections. This is significant, since Netanyahu’s speech that day remains the only official endorsement of a Palestinian state or the two-state solution by the current Israeli government.

When seen in this light, it seems that the only hope for improvements lay outside the domestic Israeli/Palestinian setting, and especially in this case within Europe. The PA, crippled as it may be, has new tools at its disposal, such as the possibility of joining the International Criminal Court and other world bodies. The spirit of non-violent resistance is growing stronger in the West Bank, but still there is no debating the fact that the Palestinian’s are today in dire need of outside diplomatic and financial support. Talk is rife of the EU getting ready to present a new peace proposal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Israeli foreign ministry has already gone on high alert throughout Europe trying to contain the fallout. While the US is expected to play a secondary role, perhaps concentrating on the Iranian nuclear file, European countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Italy should carefully prepare a common position and plan ahead. If the two-state framework is still the objective then Europe, Israel’s largest trading partner, must begin to consider tough targeted measures against an uncompromising Israeli government, especially if composed of parties which publicly disavow the two-state framework and have promised to work against it. Meanwhile, regional Arab players should guide Hamas and Fatah into a true reconciliation agreement and the holding of elections in Gaza and the West Bank. On the Palestinian side, reconciliation and elections are two indispensable preconditions for there to be any possibility of movement towards a revival of talks with Israel. Arab regional actors, who have an interest in defusing tensions across the region, should support this process and help both factions reach a long-overdue national unity platform. Meanwhile, Europe and the US must work to deliver on their promise that diplomacy and negotiations are the only tools capable of advancing Palestinian rights.

A majority of the populations in the two communities still support peace and two states, but this framework, if indeed still viable, is quickly being overtaken by events on the ground. The alternatives seem even more painful and unlikely, so the time is now for Europe to stand up and do its part. A detailed peace plan and statement of EU principles complete with incentives and disincentives would be a welcomed beginning for a new European engagement in the conflict. The US of Barack Obama will no doubt understand and even be induced to follow, bringing heavy pressure on both sides to take concrete steps to comply

Andrea Dessì is Junior Researcher within IAI’s Mediterranean and Middle East program.



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