Naomi Chazan

The elephant in the polling booth

These elections offer perhaps the last opportunity for the citizens of Israel to have their say on the future of their country

Democratic elections, as the American ballot so clearly demonstrated, magnify critical issues and seek to decide key policy directions. In Israel, the intensification of activity around the forthcoming elections seems to be doing exactly the opposite. With the parties selecting their lists and gearing up for the campaign, most have succeeded so far in averting the most vital question on Israel’s agenda: the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The country is in a virtual state of denial, and the emerging electoral contest is the best manifestation of this studious, systematic and purposeful avoidance. But the elephant is in the room. During the coming weeks, no party will be able to ignore its presence. The shape of Israel — and hence its character — will be determined through action or inaction on precisely this topic. These elections offer perhaps the last opportunity for the citizens of the country to have their say on this absolutely essential matter.

The forthcoming electoral season is shaping up into a contest between socioeconomic concerns on the one hand and security interests on the other. The former — promoted primarily by the current opposition — highlight the increasing inequality that is making life in the country so difficult for a growing number of people. The latter spotlights real and potential threats emanating from the rising instability in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring and from Iran’s nuclear program. Almost entirely absent is any allusion to the future of the territories and its implications for Israel — as if nothing can be expected and nothing can be done in this regard, and life must simply go on. Israelis are locked into what has become a favorite national pastime: passively subsisting in a bubble of their own making without exerting the least effort to extricate themselves from a situation which they themselves deem unacceptable.

Why has Israel/Palestine been so neatly removed from the table? Part of the answer lies in the belief that, despite the truly overwhelming preference for the two-state solution, most Israelis don’t believe that it’s going to happen (the polls are remarkably consistent in this regard: For the past few years, over 70% of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel; the same percentage do not think that such an outcome is possible). This pattern has been buttressed not only by ongoing violence along Israel’s borders, but also, tellingly, by a general acceptance of the dictum — first disseminated by Ehud Barak after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 and then reiterated by almost all his successors — that there is no partner on the other side. Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent appeal to the Israeli public failed to put a dent in this perception.

Behind this prevailing disbelief lies something much deeper: a profound unwillingness to pay the price involved in ending the occupation. For far too long, most Israelis, including those who view themselves as moderates, have been all too eager to postpone grappling with the issue. By acceding to the various excuses espoused by successive governments, they have contributed to further complicating the situation and making the resolution of the conflict that much more difficult. The result is a palpable shift to the right of the Israeli body politic, along with a creeping move towards the entrenchment of an unequal one-state reality under the guise of necessity.

Those who think that this election period can proceed apace without coming to terms with the main issue at stake are sorely mistaken. In all likelihood, the Palestinian Authority will ask for non-member state observer status in the United Nations in less than three weeks, on the 65th anniversary of the historic 1947 partition vote of November 29, 1947. The General Assembly will approve this request by an overwhelming majority. And despite the imposition of retaliatory measures already planned by Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman (along with some mumblings of disapproval in certain opposition circles), recognition of the problem cannot but seep into the public consciousness.

These elections are, in fact, all about linkages. An Israeli family cast their ballots at a polling station in 2009 (photo credit: Flash90)
These elections are, in fact, all about linkages. An Israeli family cast their ballots at a polling station in 2009 (photo credit: Flash90)

This will be, in all likelihood, further reinforced by the international community, and especially by leading western democracies. Speculations aside, it is difficult to see Barack Obama directly intervening in the Israeli elections. But the newly reelected president, along with his allies in Europe, will make it eminently clear that the community of values that link together democratic countries negates any further deferral of Palestinian self- determination alongside Israel and that this obligates its leaders as well. The electorate, therefore, does not have the luxury of ignoring the Palestinian question, nor, indeed, should it do so.

Most Israelis understand that every alternative to a two-state scenario — from the maintenance of the status quo to the championing of confederal, federal or bi-national variations of a one state solution — compromises the founding principles laid down in the country’s declaration of independence. They are less aware of the fact that the key issues currently at the forefront of the electoral agenda are integrally tied to the occupation. It is well-nigh impossible to speak of social justice without referring to the gross inequity of allocations in the country in general and to the billions expended on the expansion and protection of the settlement enterprise in particular. One cannot seriously contemplate achieving any durable security as long as Israel rules over another people against their will. And surely no regional stability can be attained while the Palestinian conundrum remains unresolved.

These elections are, in fact, all about linkages. The tendency of parties in the ruling coalition — and of most of their opponents — to sidestep the connection between the issues they want to focus on and the basic challenge facing the Israeli state cannot, however, endure. Since this is the case, it would be best to grasp the bull by the horns: to actively transform the January 22nd polls into a veritable plebiscite on the form of Israel and its guiding values. Instead of succumbing to the prevailing passivity, the contestants have the chance to take the initiative, suggest new and bold ideas, and present a horizon for Israel and its neighbors.

It is high time that Israelis take responsibility for their destiny. They will only be able to do so if they stop playing games with themselves and their (sadly dwindling) supporters overseas, and deal directly with the existential questions that they confront. Voters must demand clarity from the contending parties and, by voting their convictions, indicate explicitly the policy direction they wish to pursue. The realization of the two-state solution and the reassertion of Israel’s democratic spirit and its Jewish heritage lie in the hands of each and every one of its citizens.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.