With polls set to open within hours in the most competitive election in Israel since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, both parties aiming to form Israel’s next government made their final cases to voters — and in doing so, provided election eve bombshells.
Netanyahu’s decision to denounce the two-state solution and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s decision to renounce her claim to the premiership both, in their own ways, brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of voters’ minds. That follows a three-month election campaign during which Israeli-Palestinian relations, a matter of existential importance to both voting Israelis and non-voting Palestinians, figured less prominently than economic concerns, sniping between secular and ultraorthodox politicians, Iran’s nuclear energy program or bilateral relations with the United States. For all the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress two weeks ago, the most notable aspect of his address might be that he never once uttered the word ‘Palestine.’
Netanyahu denounces two-state solution
Netanyahu announced, obliquely by way of an interview with NRG, that no Palestinian state would come into existence so long as he remains prime minister, reversing his prior 2009 commitment to a two-state solution, a stand that many Netanyahu observers always believed was less than full-hearted:
“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand”…. During a visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa earlier Monday, Netanyahu warned that if he were not elected, “Hamastan B.” would be established in Jerusalem. “If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Isaac Herzog] form a government, Hamastan B will be established here.”
Netanyahu’s strategy is clear. By tying himself to a hard-line stand on Palestinian statehood, he hopes to appeal to a handful of voters on the right — settlers and other conservatives that might otherwise be inclined to support the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (
Livni clears way for Herzog to serve full term as PM
Meanwhile, Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and, only a year ago, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator in the abandoned peace process with the Palestinians, delivered her own shocker today when she gave up her claim to the premiership.
Livni, a former foreign minister as well, actually won the greatest number of seats in the 2009 election as the leader of Kadima (קדימה), the centrist party that Ariel Sharon formed in 2005. But she failed to build a majority coalition and Netanyahu, as the leader of the second-largest party, Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), formed a government instead. Livni refused to bring Kadima into Netanyahu’s coalition, and her steadfast attitude led to her ouster from the Kadima leadership in 2012.
Undaunted, Livni formed a new party, Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘
Livni quickly joined forces with Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Israeli Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית), to form a center-left electoral coalition, the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני). At the time, Herzog and Livni (pictured above) agreed to rotate the premiership — Herzog would serve for two years as prime minister, then Livni would follow. Together, the Zionist Union became a competitive force against Likud and, in the final days of the campaign, took a slight polling lead.
No one really expected the revolving premiership plan to work in reality, given that most Israeli governments end long before the full four-year term. Moreover, it would have made coalition negotiations over a governing agenda much trickier. It’s not hard to understand why Livni would make this announcement on the eve of the election. Even if the Zionist Union wins, Herzog will plot an incredibly difficult path to finding a majority coalition.
Nevertheless, it must have been a hard decision for Livni, who has been a credible contender for the premiership for nearly a decade and one of the most exceptional voices in Israel to promote a peace plan with Palestine.
Meanwhile, in Ramallah and Gaza…
If Netanyahu both loses the election tomorrow and loses the opportunity to form a government (two very separate things), it will certainly mark the end of a nadir for Israeli-Palestinian relations, which culminated last summer with the collapse of peace talks and a summer military offensive against Gaza that resulted in so many civilian deaths that Palestinian leaders have joined the International Criminal Court to bring charges against Israel for war crimes. Ehud Olmert may had begun the eight-year blockade of Gaza, but it’s Netanyahu who has institutionalized it.
But that’s not to say that Herzog as prime minister would necessarily alter the course of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Though it’s true that Labor is historically much more willing to negotiate with Palestinian leaders, it’s been 16 years since Israel has elected a Labor prime minister. Herzog has pledged to restart the peace process, but it seems unlikely he will prioritize a complicated initiative, especially considering he will be leading a diverse coalition with very contradictory viewpoints on Palestine.
Herzog and Livni are both much more enthusiastic supporters of the two-state solution than Netanyahu ever was, though Herzog hasn’t particularly gone out of his way throughout the campaign to emphasize it. Unlike Netanyahu, Herzog is much more receptive to freezing West Bank settlements, though he hasn’t committed to expressly rolling back existing settlements.
Above all, Herzog evinces the notion that he will do just whatever he needs to return Israel to the good graces of international opinion, which underlines that the differences between Netanyahu and Herzog are mostly stylistic and only minimally substantive. Palestinians might find themselves even worse off under a Labor-led government because Herzog seems unlikely to engage in the same kind of provocations that have alienated even Israel’s traditional allies, like the United States. That, in turn, could reduce the appetite among American leftists and Europeans, in particular, for a unilateral Palestinian approach to independence.
Moreover, so long as the Palestinian leadership remains divided between a more moderate West Bank faction, Fatah (فتح), and a much more radical Gaza faction, Hamas (حماس), it makes it doubly harder to reach consensus about the future of any Palestinian state — already one of the most vexing diplomatic and security questions in international affairs for the past half-century. Though last year’s aborted attempt at a Fatah-Hamas unity government met with despair from Netanyahu and US leaders, it’s conceivably a prerequisite for any lasting peace.
No matter what happens, however, it’s certain that the 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip will not have any say in an election that will directly influence their lives. As the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories enters its 48th year, however, and two decades after the Oslo peace accords failed to deliver a solution, it’s becoming increasingly incongruent for Israel to hold itself out as a robust democracy when over four million people, residing under Israeli sovereignty for nearly five decades, are disenfranchised and, above all, frustrated to settle Palestinian nationhood once and for all.
That means that, no matter how much Israel’s politicians avoid the issue in national elections, the Israel-Palestine chestnut will nevertheless rank among the top concerns for Israel’s next government.