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Can Israel’s coming election advance prospects for peace?

Analysis: In the absence of international pressure, voters and parties are likely to reinforce the status quo

The last time Israelis went to the polls, less than two years ago, relations with the Palestinians — and the issues of peace and occupation — were barely featured. This time around, things could be a little different.

While polls show voters continuing to prioritize socioeconomic concerns, events have conspired to make the Palestinians a little less invisible than they have recently been in the Israeli political conversation. The drama of last summer’s war against Gaza has been followed by weeks of low-intensity violence, especially in Jerusalem. And whereas open-ended peace talks had long allowed Israel’s political parties to defer dealing with their differences regarding the Palestinians, the collapse of the peace process has brought to the fore Israeli differences on issues such as annexing more Palestinian territory, managing Israel's international diplomatic standing and relations with Washington and the rights (or lack thereof) of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign opened with an attack on his former centrist coalition allies, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, for being insufficiently committed to settling all of Jerusalem and to the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Even if the Palestinians are figuring in the conversation, however, for these elections to alter the current poor prospects for advancing peace, there would need to be a clear alternative from the center-left with a chance of winning and of establishing a working coalition.

Prominent Israeli commentators expect the forthcoming election to be almost exclusively about Netanyahu, with the possibility that anyone-but-Netanyahu sentiment could lead to his ouster. But polling suggests that if Netanyahu falls, his successor would more likely come from the right than from outside it — a potential putsch within Likud or a coalition led by settler leader Naftali Bennett or outgoing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The problem is that the leaders of all the major Zionist parties — those who believe in the principle of a Jewish state — even those on the center or soft left of the spectrum (such as Livni, Lapid, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former Likud stalwart Moshe Kahalon, who looks set to lead a popular new centrist party) previously served under Netanyahu, sometimes in coalition with far right (and not infrequently racist) secular and religious nationalists such as Lieberman and Bennett.

Meretz is alone in the Zionist camp in maintaining the sort of principled rejection more common among mainstream politicians in Europe of making alliances with parties of the xenophobic right. 

For almost two decades, every more-centrist prime minister of Israel since Yitzhak Rabin — from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert — has allied himself with elements of the ideological right. They typically attribute this habit to the demands of Israel’s coalition politics. But that obscures the element of choice.

On each occasion, the political arithmetic would have allowed for a coalition excluding the ideological right. The parties of the Zionist center and left, the ultra-Orthodox and those largely representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute a parliamentary majority today and will almost certainly do so again after the March 17 election. But the parties of the Zionist center have chosen to either embrace the ideological right as coalition partners or to encourage the ultra-Orthodox to do so while going into opposition themselves. The so-called Arab parties have been permanently kept at arm’s length by the parties of the Zionist center and soft left. 

It’s not that the exact balance of the coalition between center and right makes no difference to Israel’s policies. A more centrist coalition and prime minister would strike a more reasonable pose in the international arena, would be more willing to negotiate with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and could even make limited compromises on the ground. But it’s worth noting that under centrist leaders in coalition with the right over the past two decades, Israel has significantly expanded settlement of occupied territories (even Sharon, who withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza, nonetheless oversaw a significant net growth in the settler population). All those center-right coalition leaders have waged harsh military campaigns against the Palestinians and have entrenched the occupation.

It is widely assumed that the coming election will put the ideological right back in power with centrists or the ultra-Orthodox or both. And as a result, analysts generally expect continuity of the current policies of settlement and occupation as well as of the violence and instability that has accompanied them.

But that pattern simply reflects the logic of the current calculus of the parties: Confronting the ideological right and allying with the Arab parties or the ultra-Orthodox or both would be politically costly among centrist voters, whereas compromising with the ideological right has been largely cost-free. The ultra-Orthodox parties previously demonstrated a willingness to adopt a pragmatic stance on issues of land and occupation to an extent that distinguishes them from the far right.

Centrist voters are frequently hostile to both the ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. They tend to prioritize cultural identity politics, defense of secular space and cost-of-living issues above the occupation or concerns over an inclusive democracy.

The basis of that calculation might change, of course, if the occupation were to carry a price rather than remain almost entirely cost-free for Israel. There are signs that the diplomatic cost of the status quo is slowly rising for Israel in the form of economic sanctions targeted at settlement activity, diplomatic pressure through recognition of Palestinian statehood by European countries, emerging international legal and diplomatic pathways for the Palestinians and unarmed protest actions. Violence, however, tends to press the Zionist parties to close ranks.

The potential for outside pressures to compel Israel’s centrist political leaders to change their coalition calculations offers Palestinian political leaders some leverage to influence the outcome of Israel’s elections. 

Palestinian leaders have long flirted with political, diplomatic and legal strategies designed to raise the cost of the status quo, although until now they have largely confined themselves to rhetoric, with little follow-through or consistency — meaning their impact is unlikely to be felt in the March election.

Instead, the coming vote is expected to produce further momentum toward the right or reinforce the current right-led coalition with centrists and its attendant paralysis. Either outcome would reinforce the occupation and the expansion of settlements and exclusive Jewish rights. But Palestinian and international responses to an unyielding occupation in the months and years that follow could have a more profound impact on future Israeli decision-making.   

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