As Israelis and concerned outsiders struggle to find clarity from the recent election, the three leading parties are all claiming some form of victory. Despite the polarization and division among parties and the personalities leading them, the election clearly reflects an ideological shift to the right in Israeli society. It is here where the national debate and its rules of engagement will be defined. The outcome of this debate will not only determine Israel’s future but the future of the Palestinians, the broader Middle East, US foreign policy in the region and beyond.
Combining all the votes of the major right-wing parties from the center to the far-right, irrelevant of ideological differences, constitutes a solid majority. With internal and economic security dominating the debate, the ideological shift was not unexpected. The traditional left-right (Labor-Likud) divide that dominated Israeli politics for decades, no longer applies. The Labor party which gave birth to the Israeli state in 1948 fared an unprecedented fourth place.
Despite lower voter turnout, electoral participation was fairly high when compared to other democracies. The election also reflected a considerable degree of public disillusionment with the status quo and current political establishment. Despite the ideological shift to the right, the election also confirmed a void of leadership in Israeli society. Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu can claim victory in the broad ideological debate but not a popular mandate. There is no single individual leader with the credibility to do so. Despite her higher profile in recent months, it is still too early to know if Tzipi Livni could emerge as such a leader. Only time will tell, particularly if she gets the opportunity to head a coalition government. After the election, she boldly claimed that her party Kadima is the “common denominator of Israeli society”. At this point, it is, at least, the lowest common denominator of Israeli society. Furthermore, Israel’s left lacks a convincing leader and compelling vision. Ultimately, whichever party or individual is able to offer a credible path to Israel’s future security can eventually claim leadership of the Jewish state.
Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, has expressed his willingness to work with whichever government emerges. Ultimately, he has no other option. President Obama and European leaders eagerly wait for a new government. In the meantime, lack of good faith between both Israelis and Palestinians is no excuse for diplomatic inactivity or indifference by others with a vested interest in peace. Hamas’ offer of an 18-month truce, only through Egyptian mediation, must be seized upon and reviewed while Israelis sort out a new government. Preventing the outbreak of further hostilities until then remains a top priority.
The June-December 2008 cease-fire was more diplomatic fiction than fact. It amounted to a temporary de-escalation of hostilities. The reality was that Hamas continued accumulating arms and planning future attacks while Israel continued with targeted assassinations and its air-sea-land embargo of Gaza. If both sides firmly stick to the terms of a new cease-fire for the immediate future, U.S. special envoy, George Mitchell, could have a real opportunity to begin preliminary discussions in a substantive fashion.
The longer the grievances fester the more opportunity they provide to radicals and rejectionists to exploit these grievances as a pretext to further their own agendas – which go far beyond the actual grievances. Such radicals on all sides have a vested interest in the continuation and preservation of the status quo.
Other realities persist. The more Fatah remains divided and corrupt, the more Hamas will thrive. The more settlements are built in the West Bank, the greater is the radicalization of young Palestinians. The more rockets launched into Israel from Gaza, the greater is Israel’s reluctance to negotiate. The more bombs dropped on Hamas and Gaza, the more Hamas becomes ingrained into the social fabric of Palestinian society, the collective psyche of the Arab street and other (but not all) parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion. Lebanon’s Hizbullah had to just remain standing to claim victory in its 2006 conflict with Israel. In Gaza, Hamas just had to remain breathing just to claim some form of victory, however devastating its cost to ordinary Gazans. Although ultimate peace will be achieved in the West Bank and not Gaza, the condition of those living in Gaza cannot be ignored in the long-term. There will be blow-back with a vengeance at some future stage.
A greater burden falls upon the shoulders of President Obama, in areas where most of his predecessors failed, particularly Bill Clinton. The former president’s attempt to end a decades-old conflict in a two-week time frame in 2000 proved overwhelming for the participants, his advisors and himself. He was over-confident in his own ability and over-ambitious in attempting to secure a legacy for his presidency. With a global economic crisis and unraveling challenges at home and abroad, President Obama’s ability to make a difference in Israel/Palestine may be less than most hoped. The considerable political and diplomatic capital he has may dwindle much more quickly than anticipated. From a political, economic, diplomatic, security and humanitarian perspective, it remains in the best interests of all those concerned with regional stability and global order, to invest the necessary capital and resources to bring about a negotiated resolution sooner rather than later.