Michael Cohen
The Guardian (Opinion)
January 25, 2013 - 1:00am


More than a decade ago, the Israeli government began construction on what is today known as the separation barrier – a 430-mile long planned construction project of fences, guardposts and checkpoints that provides, literally, a buffer between Israel proper and the Palestinian residents of the West Bank. The idea behind the building of the fence, which is located just east of the so-called "Green Line" in order to incorporate key Israeli settlement blocks, is that it would keep Palestinian terrorists out of Israel.

While the fence's effectiveness in curbing terrorism is more perception than reality, Palestinian attacks inside Israel have decreased significantly since the early 2000s, when bus bombings and suicide attacks were weekly, even daily occurrences. Thus, for Israelis correlation became causation.

One might be inclined to believe that this more peaceful situation would make Israelis more inclined to make difficult choices for peace. With security improved, peace could then follow; or so the argument went.

And yet, the barrier – and the general improvement in security within Israel – has had a perverse opposite effect. Free from fear of attack when sending their children to school, or getting on a bus, or meeting friends in a café, Israelis decided that the status quo was pretty good. Rather than seek the uncertainty of peace, they could just as easily maintain the occupation of the West Bank without risk of greater terrorism.

So, instead of increasing the likelihood of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the fence helped to decrease its possibility. The false sense of long-term tranquility it fostered has become, in part, the foundation of the mass delusion in Israeli society that the current status quo of Palestinian disenfranchisement can continue ad infinitum.

From that perspective, the results of Tuesday's Knesset vote in Israelcan, tortured analogy aside, be considered the "separation barrier election". With one of the longest periods of sustained peace and security in the nation's history, Israelis were barely challenged by their leaders to consider the plight of the Palestinians and the corrosive effects of occupation.

Rather, they were encouraged to vote on economic and social concerns, content in the knowledge that the current situation vis-a-vis the Palestinians would remain largely unchanged – no matter who fared best at the polls. And this they did, embracing the seeming national consensus that the status quo is sustainable and more parochial national concerns should be addressed.

It's a result that provides even more compelling evidence that if Israel is to be dissuaded from its current path toward a one-state solution, it will not come from the country's political system, but from outside forces and, in particular, the United States.

This pessimistic take on the Israeli election returns runs counter to the dominant media narrative since Tuesday's surprising results: namely, the return of the center-left and the diminishment of the far right. There is, truth be told, much to this story. The coalition of Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu lost 11 seats and badly underperformed pre-election polls. Naftali Bennet's rightwing Jewish Home party also did worse than expected, a response perhaps to the political extremists that found a place in the party's ranks.

This was an election that was supposed to confirm the ascendancy of the far-right, settler community in Israeli politics. While this group remains powerful, they are somewhat less dominant after Tuesday than they were before. It is not unimaginable to suggest that their political rise has indeed crested. At the same time, the center-left parties (in combination with Israeli Arab parties) scored between 56 and 58 seats out of 120 in the next Knesset – a result that would have seemed inconceivable a few weeks ago.

While American observers of Israel tend to equate center-left with support for the peace process, that would not, however, be the correct takeaway from Tuesday's vote. For example, the surprise "winner" on Tuesday was Yair Lapid and his newly-formed Yesh Atid party, which scored 19 seats – the second largest total in the Knesset. But Lapid's campaign made little mention of the Palestinians of the occupation; his message revolved around economic questions – and the hot-button issue of reforming the military draft to compel ultra-orthodox youth to serve.

While Lapid paid lip-service support to a two-state solution – as practically all Israeli politicians do these days, along with two-thirds of the country – he provided little indication of how, if elected prime minister, he would move the country any closer to that reality. Indeed, at one point, Lapid argued that as long as Israel refuses to make concessions on Jerusalem, Palestinians will eventually get the message and move on. This was a telling indication that Lapid, like many Israelis, imagines Palestinian grievances not as they are, but how he would wish them to be.

The second strongest result on the center-left was for the Labor party, which scored 15 seats. This was an underwhelming performance, not only because Labor began the campaign polling at a level that should have brought it more than 20 seats, but was also in the most ideal situation imaginable to make a political comeback. For a party that had once dominated Israeli politics and was seen as the standard bearer of the nation's social democratic ethos, losing to the uncommonly vapid Lapid – on economic and quality of life issues no less – is an indication of Labor's increasingly second-tier status in Israeli politics, even within the center-left.

Like Lapid, Labor's new leader, Shelley Yachimovich, pointedly ignored security issues, even though Labor has long been the party most identified with the two-state solution. This was a tactical decision born out of fears that a focus on security would alienate centrist voters, but Yachimovich badly undercut her own campaign by vacillating on whether she would join a Netanyahu-led coalition. (She eventually said she would not.) Still, like Lapid's avoidance of the issue, Labor's strategy is indicative of the current Israeli mindset on the occupation: they just don't want to talk about it.

Consider, for example, that there were two parties that did want talk about the need to move forward on resolving the Palestinian issue: Tzipi Livni's HaTnua and the liberal Zionist Meretz party. While Meretz doubled its presence in the Knesset, it still only matched Livni with six seats. So, of the five major center-left parties (plus the spiraling Kadima, which barely held on with two seats), those talking about ending the occupation got 12 seats; those ignoring the issue altogether got 36.

Moreover, the performance of Livni and Meretz was matched by that of Bennet's Jewish Home, which supports annexation of the West Bank and is more rightwing and uncompromising on territorial concessions for peace even than Netanyahu's current far-right government. It's pretty hard to see, in those results, any momentum for action on the peace process – making the job for US policy-makers intent on seeing progress on the issue that much more difficult.

Israelis might be sick and tired of the sclerotic political parties of old; they might crave economic reform and fewer government protections for ultra-orthodox communities, but nothing in the election outcome suggests that they have any interest in tackling the challenge of the two-state solution and ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. To be sure, Likud took a serious political hit – and in the White House, one has to imagine that President Obama, who had looked on last year as Netanyahu tried to bolster Obama's GOP rival, Mitt Romney, during the 2012 campaign, cracked a smile when he heard the results. But it is not clear that Bibi was being punished for his inflexible position on the peace process.

More likely, since there is a broad consensus in Israeli society for kicking the can down the road with the Palestinians, Israelis could afford to vote on other issues, knowing that they would be at little risk of electing a government that would deviate from current policy. This was especially true as Bibi was widely expected to stay on as prime minister.

From this perspective, the lack of fervent opposition to Netanyahu's security policies made it difficult for him to strongly differentiate himself from his opponents. They certainly did not have the same problem in making a distinction between themselves and Netanyahu on economic issues.

One could also argue that Netanyahu's poor relationship with President Obama, his diplomatic defeats at the United Nations, and his plans to flagrantly expand settlement construction in the controversial E-1 area of the West Bank, were most harmful to his campaign not because they upset the management of the status quo with the Palestinians, but because they brought attention to the untenable character of the current situation.

In other words, the best way to keep things as they are in Israel is not to rock the boat. But Bibi did just that. One gets the impression that voters were more troubled by the country's growing international isolation, rather than the actual reasons for that isolation. It is as if Israelis were punishing Netanyahu for putting the country's current "Potemkin village"reality at risk.

But never fear:Yair Lapid can now fix that problem.

Even though his Yesh Atid party performed above expectations this week, Lapid will likely join Netanyahu's coalition (probably with Kadima and Livni) – and thus provide validation of the status quo. At the same time, he will grant the hard right a figleaf of political protection for their headlong pursuit of further settlement growth, growing obstacles to a Palestinian state and the increasing potential of a one-state, apartheid reality for Israel and the Palestinians.

This has serious implications for Israel's future – and for the US relationship with one of its closest allies in the region. Quite simply, if the US is waiting for Israel to make the first move on negotiations with the Palestinians and moving the peace process forward, they will be waiting a very long time.

Tuesday's results are perhaps the most compelling indication possible that change in the status of the West Bank and the Palestinians will not come from inside Israel. And this places even greater pressure on the United States, if it hopes to affect real change in the region.

As things currently stand, if change in the Palestinians status were to occur, the catalyst to the process will not be simple or pretty: it will either be renewed violence in the Palestinian territories (that is, a third intifada) or growing international pressure. If President Obama believes, as he suggested in the run-up to the election, that "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are" by continuing new settlement construction, then he will need to act boldly and decisively in using American power to change that political calculation.

With his weakened political position, and the risk of frayed relations with the United States, Netanyahu might be newly vulnerable to being pressured into tentative steps, like backing off E-1 construction or even restarting talks with Abbas and the Palestinians. But if Bibi does nothing, Israeli politics will continue on the same dangerous course that Tuesday's election confirmed.

In that case, the United States will find itself in the increasingly uncomfortable position of providing its greatest bilateral support to a nation marching ever closer to the abyss.


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