international analysis and commentary

The Israeli political spectrum: polarization and foreign policy continuity

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The echoes of the last violent confrontation between Israel and Gaza further strengthened an already shared perception in the Israeli-Palestinian context: violence sets the clock back on all negotiations and who benefits from it are extremist political forces, often functional to each other even in opposing camps. The latest survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, released on December 26, revealed that compared to three months ago, there would be a 7-8% increase in support for Hamas if legislative and presidential elections were held: Isma’il Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, today would win a presidential election.

On the other side, according to all available polls, in the coming parliamentary elections Israeli voters will elect an unprecedented number of far-right members of Knesset. Within the Likud (Consolidation), Israel’s ruling party over the last four years, many members have been replaced by settlers with even more radical political agendas. This scenario pushed some analysts to refer to a sort of “covenant of extremists”: “Khaled Meshal – noted Nehemia Shtrasler on Israel’s left-wing daily Ha’aretz – is the perfect counterpart for PM Benjamin Netanyahu. He proves that if there is no partner, that there is no one to talk to, and that’s all Netanyahu needs.”

A total of 34 political parties have entered the race for the Knesset, a unicameral parliament of 120 seats. A big percentage of these political factions have a right-wing political orientation. Likud-Beiteinu alone, a joint list of the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu (Israel our home) parties, is expected to obtain about 34 seats. The merger between the two parties provoked a significant decline in their respective popularity (quantifiable in 10 seats) but it will not prevent PM Netanyahu from forming a coalition with various ultra-nationalist, pro-settlement and religious factions, thus achieving the required majority (61) of seats.

Naftali Bennett, leader of HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home), the right-wing religious Zionist party that benefited the most from the Likud-Beiteinu merger, has harshly accused Netanyahu of supporting the two-state solution as well as of “softness” on the Palestinian bid at the UN. Despite this pre-electoral fracture, HaBayit HaYehudi, which will obtain around 15 seats, will likely be the political movement that, together with ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (5 seats), will allow Netanyahu to form a 65-member coalition.

Left-wing parties, on the other hand, are almost absent – Meretz (Energy) and Hadash (The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) are the only Jewish parties that admit being left-wing – in the current Israeli political scenario. Instead, every “potential” left-wing party claims now to be “in the center”. Shelly Yachomovich, leader of the Labor Party (HaAvoda), went so far as to declare to the settler website Arutz 7 that considering Labor a left-wing party is historically unjust. Moreover she gave a speech in Ariel, a settlement particularly detrimental for the local Palestinian communities, in order to attract more right-wing voters.

The coming elections will thus take place in a particularly radicalized atmosphere. But which are the issues of main concern in the current round of voting? In domestic politics, two are the core issues: welfare and the economy and the secular-religious cleavage. Israelis are nowadays much more concerned with economic and social issues and many parties, even the most conservative ones, are trying to ride the wave of the anti-government protests of the last few years. Besides this, harsh debates are taking place regarding the government aids granted to the “ultra-Orthodox” (Haredi) as well as the special arrangement (Torato Omanuto) that allows them to skip the mandatory military service: exemptions increasingly opposed by an important percentage of the secular population.

In foreign policy, the Iranian threat still attracts most attention. The Iranian presidential election, that will take place on June 14, 2013, marking the political end of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not sufficient to reassure the public opinion. The image of a nuclear Iran that will wipe Israel off the map is often talked about. That is a further reason why many parties included well known military figures in their lists: such a strategy is considered vital to provide an image of strength.

Finally, almost all Israeli parties, even the center left ones, are committed to discourage or ignore the two-state solution. Gideon Sa’ar, the Israeli Minister of Education and the top vote-getter in the Likud primary elections, pointed out for example that the idea of a Palestinian state was never in the Likud platform and should not be carried out. Besides these widely shared stances, the main parties are reassuring their electors about the future of the existing settlements (supported, according to the last survey released by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, by an important percentage of the Israeli public opinion), and the ones that will be built in the near future.

The current Israeli government went even further at the end of November – mainly, but not only, as a response of the Palestinians’ UN bid – when it gave green light for the colonization of area E1, on the hills between Ma’aleh Adumim – a settlement nearly equivalent in size to Tel Aviv – and Jerusalem. The new plan – which ignores the local Palestinian population and is once again justified through a selective use of religion or a wrong interpretation of the land tenure issue – will further complicate the feasibility of the two-state solution, since the area in question represents one of the last connective strips between Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The area between the so called E1 area and the Dead Sea is not devoid of settlements and bypass roads, nor of a local population. Moreover, despite the widespread claim that the E1 area “doesn’t cut the West Bank in two”, this very land is necessary to avoid an almost complete detachment of the key network connections between the Northern and Southern portions of the West Bank; one of the few viable passages left would be placed near Jericho. Very few other options would remain for the Palestinians, among them the problematic and extremely onerous construction of a highway in the natural reserve of Wadi Qelt. These alternatives, however, are no more than links for traffic and do not represent territorial continuity.

In the past, many empires and states justified their policies through a recurring set of arguments for security through expansion, and all of them paid a big price for such an ideology. The current Israeli elections seem to be dominated by a similar assumption. While Israeli security is and has to remain a priority, assumptions on how it can be best achieved need to be rethought. Tel Aviv needs more than ever a new strategy based on the awareness that the current status quo, despite its apparent benefits, will lead the country to complete isolation and to a weaker position of Israel in the contemporary Middle East. A “new” region in which Egypt, Syria and Jordan – that for decades have been three pillars on which Israel could, in different ways, count – play now a very different role.