Conventional wisdom has it that the trajectory of the second round of general elections in 2019 is clear. The campaign is centered almost entirely on two cosmetic issues: the form of the next coalition (a national unity government or another right-wing-religious agglomeration); and the identity of the person who will stand at its helm (Benyamin Netanyahu or somebody else). Few substantive issues have intruded into the electoral discourse — and those that have (religion and state, corruption, human rights, social equity, traffic jams, gender equality, health care, even security) have barely made a dent on the public consciousness. As long as this pattern persists and one (real or invented) crisis follows upon another, little incentive exists to turn out at the polls, thus predetermining the results — although hardly the aftermath — of the September ballot.
Israel can hardly afford yet another issue-free election within six months at such a critical time. But is it still possible to inject existential questions into the debate? Can these affect the dynamics of the campaign in the next four weeks? Could they not only influence the outcome but also chart a new course for Israel’s future? The answer to all these questions — given the collision course that the Netanyahu government has embarked upon on all fronts — is a resounding yes.
The likelihood, however, depends, more than anything else, on the leadership, courage and creativity of the small and fragmented opposition on the left that still has it in its power to redirect the campaign and imbue it with real meaning. Only it can supply a real alternative to the annexationist push of the Likud and its cohorts. It alone can compel Israelis to refocus on the single most sustained issue in Israeli politics for the past half-century and more: the Arab-Israel conflict and especially its Palestinian core.
No question has been more significant in the shaping of Israel and its politics since independence. No subject has divided the country so deeply over the years. No single topic has had such an overriding effect on its domestic life and international standing. No other issue has had such a direct impact on the outcome of all general elections since 1967. No question has influenced more sharply the deteriorating course of the country’s democracy and its normative underpinnings. And, undoubtedly, there is no other matter more essential for Israel’s future than the resolution of this century-old dispute.
Ever since the collapse of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, however, the prospects for a negotiated settlement between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors have dimmed almost beyond the point of no return. This is a result not only of the failure of this hastily-convened, poorly-timed, improperly-prepared and ultimately unsuccessful gathering, but also of the message that it emitted: that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side.
Ehud Barak, its author and purveyor, cast the first seeds, echoed by Bill Clinton and then by a host of others. During the past two decades, the “no partner” mantra has served as an excuse for successive Israeli leaders either to shun serious efforts at reaching a lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord or as a crutch to explain away the collapse of the sporadic attempts that ensued: from Ariel Sharon’s hesitant steps preceding the launching of the Annapolis process, the subsequent talks conducted by Ehud Olmert and Arafat’s successor, Abu-Mazen, and then to John Kerry’s persistent (and ultimately frustrated) initiative to revive the negotiations in 2013-2014. There is now a broad consensus — with the notable exception of Meretz and the Joint Arab list — that the absence of a negotiating partner is the main reason for the lack of progress on the diplomatic front. Indeed, no real differences are apparent between Binyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, between Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon, between Naftali Bennett and Yitzhak Herzog, or, for that matter, between Ayelet Shaked and Orly Levy-Abekasis on this question.
For close to two decades Israelis have been led to believe that they have no Palestinian interlocutor and that therefore no understanding can be reached with Palestinians in the foreseeable future. This mindset has led to the ineluctable conclusion that the conflict must be managed and its resolution put on hold until some future date. It is as if one phrase, transformed into an irrefutable maxim, has cast an unyielding iron-clad spell on an entire generation of Israelis.
Israelis have to shed this numbing mental shackle, especially at this precarious crossroads. The absence of a viable diplomatic alternative has generated escalation on all fronts. The situation in Gaza — caught between abject poverty and outright anarchy — is at a boiling point. Settlement expansion, land expropriations, daily harassments, new economic restrictions and the loss of hope have been accompanied by a resurgence of violence in the West Bank. The increased talk of annexation by current Israeli leaders — heavily amplified during the election season — has further exacerbated tensions. The change in the status of the United States as an honest broker under President Trump has limited Palestinian options and, in the wake of the Omar-Tlaib fiasco, transformed Israel into a divisive political issue in American politics for the first time in its history.
Matters are at a breaking point — perhaps to the delight of right-wing advocates of a Greater Land of Israel, but to the detriment of most Israelis and the foundational principles of Israel itself. These can only be abated by resuscitating that diplomatic option that has been effectively dissipated since the negotiations were buried under the “no-partner” barrage. Surely Israel’s confused and largely disenchanted electorate deserves a choice at the ballot box. That is the only way that it can have a say in its own destiny.
Ehud Barak is uniquely positioned to initiate and navigate such a game-changing move. Only the former Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Chief of Staff and current co-leader of the newly-formed Democratic Union Barak — despite his erratic political record and his multiple flaws — has the historical gravitas and the unique power to redirect the campaign and imbue it with real meaning. As the person responsible for the “no-partner” narrative, he can play a major role in debunking it monumental shockwaves. He can break the current stalemate that threatens another round of violence and despair. Only he, by taking full responsibility for past policies and their long-term fallout, can lead the way. As a key advocate of the concept of the separation between Israelis and Palestinians (“we are here and they are there”) he has an unusual opportunity to recast the meaning of a two-state solution in terms of interacting national entities peacefully sharing the land. And, as someone who has continuously insisted, notably just this past week, that no progress can be made without Palestinian participation, he has the opportunity to update the nature and extent of this engagement to suit the circumstances of the heavily altered geostrategic configuration at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.
Ehud Barak can shake the reigning conception with one bold, symbolic, act. He can go to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow, at the head of a delegation of Jewish and Arab Israeli leaders and state loudly: “I was wrong when I declared, following my disappointment at Camp David, that Israel has no partner for peace. I did not realize that this statement would be used as enduring obstacle to any further negotiations and turned against the Palestinian people as a whole. I am here to atone for my historic mistake and to make amends. I come in peace and seek to partner with you in our latter years for the sake of future generations. Together, we can move beyond the accumulated enmity and strike a workable, lasting and fair agreement for the benefit of both our communities, the region and global stability.”
If Ehud Barak is, as it appears, truly determined to leave an indelible mark on Israel, he must also realize that he is as much a liability as an asset. To augment the impact of his message and assuage critics within and beyond his own circles, he must disclaim any ambition of returning to Balfour Street or to the government. He has to make it clear that he plans to dedicate himself completely to the realization of this cause (thus dispelling many of the clouds around his candidacy and substantially enhancing his credibility). If he really wants to influence these elections, he has no choice but to masterfully oversee a serious — albeit highly emotional and tendentious — debate around the main item on Israel’s national agenda. And if he wants to reengage Israeli citizens and lay the groundwork for a more equitable society, perhaps he, more than anyone else, can ignite the spark that will bring them out of their passivity and indifference.
Mr. Barak: go to Abu-Mazen. Now. Break the unbearable and dangerous deadlock. Make sure that these elections pave the way for a real turnaround in Israel’s course. Give citizens the hope that has eluded them for too long. Do what is needed. You have already proven that you have the mettle to acknowledge past mistakes. Now demonstrate that you mean it by making a difference. Maybe in the process you can also salvage your extremely tarnished reputation. That is what the leadership you tout is all about. A long-befuddled and rudderless society will be eternally in your debt. Don’t waste any more time. Go today. Before it is too late.