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A guide for the perplexed voter

Israel is heading into a fateful referendum on whether or not it will pursue a two-state solution or sacrifice its democratic character and international standing

The 2013 elections may very well be the most important elections to be held in Israel since 1967. They will, in effect, determine not only the borders of the state of Israel and its human composition, but also its normative character. During the tenure of the 19th Knesset, either progress will be made towards the implementation of a two-state solution, or this option, with all that it implies in terms of the Jewish and democratic nature of the country, will be effectively sealed. There is, therefore, an integral link between positions on this matter and an array of other concerns, ranging from the economy, civic service, religion and state and, of course, security.

The current campaign hardly reflects the momentous quality of this electoral moment. Only recently have the key contenders devoted any attention to issues related to a permanent settlement with the Palestinians; only a handful have fully spelled out their positions on this most fundamental of questions. Indeed, a brief survey of the (mostly scanty) platforms of the parties obfuscates rather than enlightens, leaving many voters unsure of the differences between the contenders and unable to make an informed choice. The following is a brief (albeit simple) guide for the perplexed, which tries to go beyond the murky verbiage and present the substantive options available, based both on written statements and oral declarations.

In broad strokes, it is possible to divide the political map into two large blocs. The nationalist camp, consisting of the Likud-Beytenu (headed by Netanyahu and Liberman), Jewish Home (led by Naftali Bennett), and Otzma Leyisrael (chaired by Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari), share a vision of continued Israeli control over the majority of the land between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river, as well as a decidedly ethnocentric notion of the composition of the state and its character. They differ among themselves on how to achieve this vision and on the amount of effort they are willing to put, at this juncture, into realizing their objectives.

The clearest programs are presented by the two parties on the far right. The marginal Otzma Leyisrael unabashedly advocates Jewish hegemony over the entire land, the annexation of all of the area captured in 1967, and the transfer of as many Palestinians as possible to neighboring countries. Its leadership has stood at the forefront of attacks on Arab citizens of Israel and has pointedly acknowledged its discriminatory policies – to the chagrin of most Israelis and the dismay of global actors.

The increasingly popular Jewish Home party differs somewhat in that it calls for the immediate but partial annexation of territories captured in 1967 (specifically Area C, which constitutes some 60% of the West Bank) and the granting of Israeli citizenship to what it claims to be about 50,000 Palestinians living on those lands. Autonomous Palestinian enclaves will be created in the remaining areas in a step designed to institutionalize inequality but prevent incorporation of large numbers of Palestinians into Israel. The so-called “Bennett Plan” is reminiscent of similar arrangements in other countries in the past and has consequently invited widespread opprobrium in the international arena.

The leaders of the Likud-Beytenu ostensibly stand by Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech, paying lip service to a two-state arrangement contingent upon Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state – although no written mention of such a vision appears to date on the website of either of these parties. They quickly add that conditions are not ripe for the adoption of steps towards implementation at this time (given the absence of a viable partner on the Palestinian side), allowing for stepped-up settlement construction which makes this eventuality even more remote. In effect, therefore, the Likud-Israel Beytenu’s position upholds the status quo, which in reality perpetuates a continued Israeli presence in the West Bank. Any efforts at accommodation with the Palestinians focus as a consequence on long-term conflict management rather than on its resolution, compromising Israel’s international standing as well as its democracy.

Within the Likud-Beytenu the picture is even fuzzier. Some members of the electoral alliance, such as Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotobeli, Yariv Levin and David Rotem call openly for annexation of portions of the territories, for payment to Palestinians willing to leave the land, or for a one-state solution in line with that depicted by their counterparts on the far right.

The nuances in the nationalist camp are not insignificant. They cannot, however, cover up their essentially annexationist propensities nor their avowed preference for a Jewish state, even if at the expense of its democratic character and Israel’s international legitimacy.

The second major bloc consists of parties subscribing to various gradations of a two-state vision and includes Labor, Meretz, the Movement, Yesh Atid, Hadash and portions of Balad and Ra’am Ta’al. Its proponents justify their commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by appeals – in various dosages – to the country’s Jewish and/or democratic ethos. Here, too, the differences between the various slates lie, first and foremost, in the specific approaches to the realization of this scenario.

Thus, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has specified its rejection of continued Israeli rule over another people, but calls for the incorporation of settlement blocs and Jerusalem into Israel. It voices skepticism about the ability to reach any understanding in the foreseeable future (thus coming fairly close to the moderate wing of the Likud), preferring to focus on domestic affairs. Tzipi Livni’s Movement party is far more inclined to believe not only in the necessity of such a modified two-state, but also in its feasibility.

The revived Labor party under Shelly Yachimovich has consistently stood behind the establishment of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and, lately, in parts of Jerusalem, although until recently it purposely downplayed these issues in favor of socioeconomic questions. The inevitable interconnection between these domestic issues and the physical shape of the country – not to speak of Labor’s historic values of equality, diversity and tolerance – have led to a shift in emphasis in the past few days. Its members differ on the extent of the desired withdrawal, but share a commitment to Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority.

Meretz, together with the Arab parties and especially Hadash, are the initiators and the main champions of the two-state concept. They base their stance on ending the occupation and on the delineation of the boundaries of an independent Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 Green Line. Meretz has presented a detailed four-point plan for reviving the peace process and extending it to cover the broader Arab Peace Initiative as well.

The shades of difference in the two-state camp reflect varying ideological outlooks, pragmatic concerns and utilitarian considerations. Nevertheless, all invoke a commitment to the values of equality and justice and view the realization of a two-state solution as a means of assuring Israel’s place in the global democratic community.

The ultra-orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – do make reference to the divinely ordained right of Jews to the land of Israel. For the past decade they have been tied to the nationalist camp. But this is not an inextricable bond: in the past both parties have served in governments headed by advocates of the two-state option. Depending on the balance between the two camps, they could conceivably join a coalition formed by either.

For the first time since the beginning of the electoral campaign, during the past week leading candidates and parties have become more outspoken on their view of the future of the state and its accompanying values. Their capacity to implement their vision depends, to a very large extent, on the power granted them by the electorate in two weeks time. This, in turn, rests heavily on how voters translate their own understanding of what kind of Israel they want into a concrete choice at the ballot box (and a vast majority of Israelis, even those who identify themselves on the right of the spectrum, repeatedly express a preference for a two-state solution).

Unlike unprotected sex, voters don’t have a pill to safeguard themselves from their follies on the day after the ballot. Each and every citizen has the power and the obligation to contribute to molding Israel’s future on a variety of issues in the years to come, the most significant being the very character of the state and its guiding values.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.