HOPE of a new start to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flickered into life after last week’s election in Israel. It’s a tiny hope, but precious because the peace process has been dead for so long. It arises because Israeli voters confounded every prediction that they would entrench the extreme right and, instead, many shifted to the centre-right.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the election’s big loser. Voters gave him “a bloody nose”, as a BBC commentator put it. The right-wing alliance he leads dropped from 42 to 31 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). This was surprising because Netanyahu presents himself as Mr Security in a country beset by enemies and war since its founding in 1948. He plays on the fears which this engenders and never more so than at this time when continuing threats of annihilation are heard from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (with the added scare of nuclear weapons), and when neighbouring countries are in varying degrees of dangerous turmoil: Syria, to the north, is tearing itself apart with more than 60 000 deaths already reported (and anxiety about the chemical weapons which the government is said to possess); Egypt, to the south, is convulsed by internal struggles; and Jordan, to the east, has just held a flawed election amid questions about the stability of its king’s autocratic rule.
Israel, in contrast, is secure. Its economy is strong and the election once again proved its domestic democratic status – even though it remains in undemocratic military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. Yet even there Netanyahu can claim some quiet: last year, for the first time since 1973, not one Jew died in a terror attack (although there were hundreds of violent incidents).
Despite all this a substantial number of voters turned away from him. Some went to the extreme right of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party which wants to seize the entire West Bank. But even greater numbers went to a new boy on the block – the centre-right Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, formed less than a year ago by Yair Lapid, a popular former TV news presenter: it gained 19 seats, second only to Netanyahu.
Therein lies the hope. For Israel’s proportional representation system, with its low threshold of 2% to win a Knesset seat, makes coalition government inevitable. Netanyahu is virtually certain to remain prime minister and negotiations are underway to knit together a government. In the horsetrading, different parties fight to get as much as possible for their supporters’ interests as the price for joining the coalition.
Yesh Atid is the kingmaker and two of its demands are what earned it popularity: firm government action to reduce the financial burden on the middle class and to rein in soaring house prices; with this, what is called “equality in sharing the burden” – the demand by secular Israelis to end the system whereby ultra-Orthodox religious Jewish men are exempt from three years of army conscription. Yesh Atid’s third main demand is that peace negotiations with Palestinians must be resumed.
In theory, Netanyahu will agree to resume talks. He is on record as endorsing two states, Jewish and Palestinian side by side. But his actions contradict this: his government has forged ahead in building houses for Jews on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem; each house is a fact on the ground which undermines the chance of creating an independent Palestinian state.
Nor is the issue of negotiations straightforward.
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders say they want to end their conflict. Each says they must meet without preconditions. But Netanyahu insists that Palestinians must first accept Israel as a Jewish state and must acknowledge that Jerusalem will remain undivided as the Jewish capital. Palestinians in their turn insist that they will not meet unless Israel first stops building and extending Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
So no one meets and no one talks and each blames the other.
The question now is whether Yesh Atid will or can break through this impasse.
Although its leader Yair Lapid is a political novice his handpicked members of parliament are savvy and bright and include a former head of the Shin Bet security service who has spoken publicly about the need for dialogue with Palestinians.
But how will Lapid stand up to the guile and ruthlessness of Israeli politics? He is not a great liberal – he says he will not enter any coalition with an Arab member known for her provocative actions – and the exact extent of his commitment to pursuing peace with Palestinians remains to be seen.
Those still looking for peace hopes can find some encouragement in the improved showing of the leftwing Meretz party which stands unequivocally for the end of the occupation and for two states: its parliamentary representation rose from three to six.
That means nothing in practice at present but – to super-optimists – it could be a small straw in the wind.
For the rest, Arab parties gained in votes, apparently because of increased support from Jews; but the percentage of Arab voting remained low – in the mid fifties compared with the overall high sixties – and this reflects disillusionment with the political process in improving their minority lot.
On the Jewish side, the religious parties face a dilemma: they have always been part of coalitions and have ensured that their young men are kept at their Torah studies and do not go into the army; but now they face the rise of Yesh Atid which expresses the anger of secular Jews about this. They fear Netan- yahu will not need them for a coalition and at least one party, Shas, representing mainly Sephardic Jews, is sending out signals of willingness to seek a compromise about the army draft.
This has wider implications: Shas in the past was willing to consider swapping land for peace with Palestinians. In recent years it has turned against any compromises with Palestinians.
But if Yesh Atid proves serious about picking up on the peace process, might Shas revise its stand?
While any push for peace remains uncertain within Israel, that is equally so on the international stage. The European Union, Russia, the United Nations etc have no power or influence. Nor do threats of boycotts or divestment mean anything.
The only real player is the United States and its new secretary of state, John Kerry, says he wants to get involved in Middle East peace efforts. That’s the one to watch.
- Benjamin Pogrund is a South African-born author currently living in Israel. He has authored books on Robert Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela and the South African press under apartheid