The 2019 Israeli election campaign is many things, but a debate about how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it really isn’t. This was after all the week when Ayelet Shaked made a spoof advert for a perfume named ‘Fascism’, Benjamin Netanyahu cranked up his ‘Bibi, not Tibi’ Karaoke and Moshe Yaalon called Netanyahu a traitor for allegedly pocketing £3m in a dodgy submarine deal. This is not unique to Israel, the last weeks of an election campaign are often a race to fire up the base with political rivals exchanging low blows as they duck away from detailed policy.
According to polling expert Dahlia Scheindlin, only a fifth of Israelis say resolving the conflict with the Palestinians is one of their top two priorities. But in the same survey 42 per cent ranked security in their top two. Israelis are deeply concerned about security, including wider regional threats, but deeply sceptical that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved. As such, the two main parties are trading tough soundbites about Gaza, Iran and terrorism in a battle for moderate right voters.
On Tuesday night, Benny Gantz had a golden opportunity to set the agenda with a series of prime-time TV interviews, it was a decent performance that was light on content but gave a glimpse of Gantz’s position vis a vis the Palestinians. Mindful of repeated Likud accusations that he is a leftist intent on forming an alliance with Arab parties, he chose his words extremely carefully. Although he refrained from endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian State he said: “It is our moral obligation to strive for peace” he even said he was not ashamed to use the word peace but there’s “no one to talk to at the moment” on the Palestinian side. He concluded: “We support continuing to aim for peace and political agreements on which the ultimate condition will be security for the State of Israel and preventing Israel from becoming a binational state…and any option that allows us to advance these interests we will take.” Taken together with his previous statements that Israel ‘must find a way not to rule over other people’, his support of settlement blocs close to the pre-1967 border and the Jordan valley, thus implying a freeze on settlement expansion elsewhere, and you have the outline of a centrist position that is interested in actively pursuing options to change the current situation and preserving the conditions for a two state solution.
Netanyahu’s position is clearer. He recently ruled out evacuating any settlements as part of a potential US plan for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Before the election campaign he talked frequently of giving the Palestinians “all of the powers to govern themselves but none of the powers to threaten us”. He calls this a ‘state minus’ or ‘autonomy plus’ Netanyahu has hardened his stance since the 2009 Bar Ilan University speech when he explicitly supported the two-state solution and the creation of a demilitarised Palestinian State. He also engaged with the Obama Administration’s efforts to find a way to a deal with the Palestinians, and in secret talks allowed his negotiators to agree significant concessions on territory and refugees, but times have changed. In January 2018 the Likud Central Committee approved a proposal to apply Israeli sovereignty to the whole of the West Bank. When the plan was brought forward to a vote in the Knesset, Netanyahu blocked it because annexation for him is a step too far.
According to the latest polls, Netanyahu is predicted to be able to form a coalition but it will be reliant on three right wing parties (United Right, New Right and Zehut) that are committed to unlimited settlement expansion, opposition to a Palestinian State and annexation of parts of, or all of, the West Bank. For the last four years Netanyahu was able to limit settlement expansion and halt moves toward annexation. But if he wins this election, he will be facing a criminal trial and in the weakest possible bargaining position. In the intense coalition negotiations these parties will drive home their advantage and exploit that weakness to extract a high price, demanding key Government ministries and promises of construction projects, not only to expand settlements and legalise illegal outposts, but build new towns across the West Bank.
The election is still three weeks away and some of these parties may not get enough votes to enter the next Knesset. If just one were to fail to win 3.25 per cent of the vote then Netanyahu could struggle to form a new right wing coalition.
There are only two Zionist parties that specifically endorse the creation of a Palestinian state and limiting settlement construction in the West Bank. Meretz clings to the traditional Oslo framework including plans for a divided Jerusalem and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Labour would cease all settlement expansion outside of the main blocs and work towards a demilitarised Palestinian State as part of a broad regional arrangement. On Jerusalem, it proposes a referendum on the status of Palestinian neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city. But even the party that signed the Oslo accords and established the Palestinian Authority says that a deal is not currently possible and work is required to build trust.
The reality is that the parties on the extreme right have set out bold ideas to reach their objectives, expanding settlements and transforming the legal status of the West Bank. The current political dynamic means they are closer than ever to success. The parties on the centre-left still haven’t recovered from the collapse of the Oslo process and continue to rehash the tired plans of yesterday that are all too easy for the right to knock down.
Of the two parties most likely to lead the next Government, neither have set out fresh ideas to tackle the ongoing cycle of violence in Gaza or the messy status quo with the Palestinian Authority that fuses open diplomatic conflict with close military and security cooperation. These issues may not be front and centre of the election campaign but the next Prime Minister’s first meeting with his security and military chiefs on 10 April will focus on Gaza and the West Bank. Israel’s tactical options won’t have changed, will the next Prime Minister have a new strategy? Probably not.