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Israel may have turned to the center last week, but not on foreign policy.
In the run up to the Israeli elections, the great fear discussed by pundits the world over was that Israelis would take a drastic turn to the political right at the polls. This, it was felt, would torpedo any chance of reviving the peace process and give Barack Obama another headache as he sought to head off Iran’s nuclear program — two issues of critical importance to the Obama administration. Instead of lurching to the right, however, the Israeli electorate steered toward the center. Yet as the election results confirm, Israelis remain deeply divided politically but it is mostly over socio-economic issues.
Unique in this election was that the campaigns steered clear of important foreign policy questions such as the future of relations with Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood; what should happen if Western diplomacy fails with Iran; and what will happen if Israel does not negotiate with the Palestinians. Two primary reasons explain this political phenomenon. The first is that Israeli attitudes have been hardening when it comes to the prospects of achieving peace, and the second is that many Israelis are coming to believe that peace talks with Palestinians and Western diplomacy with Iran are both destined to fail and for reasons unconnected to Israeli actions.
This is not to say that Israelis do not want peace — a position that news anchors and pundits have falsely promulgated around the globe while disregarding Palestinian actions. The fact is that the vast majority of Israelis have consistently supported peace through a two-state solution, with 70.6 percent either moderately or strongly supporting peace negotiations with Palestinians. However, an overwhelming 70 percent believe that Israel remaining a Jewish state is the most important factor — even if land has to be shared. This Israeli red line, which forms the basis of the Zionist endeavor, is far from where Palestinians stand. Two-thirds of Palestinians claimed, “The real goal should be to start with two states but then move to it all being one Palestinian state.” And, 84 percent claimed, “Over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.” Among Israelis, this reality has created a widening gulf between the desirability for peace on one hand, and the feasibility of peace on the other.
The previous premise of peacemaking rested on the idea of “land for peace.” But that formula has proven to be fool’s gold. The lands Israel evacuated have become the source of constant rocket fire coming from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. They have become Iran’s forward operating bases. And there is no appetite to repeat what happened in Gaza in the far larger, more strategic, and religiously relevant West Bank.
Taking stock of two years of Arab upheaval, Israelis are witnessing the dramatic rise of political Islam and the full-scale retreat of secularism. It is not the sunny dawn of secular Arab democracies so hoped for in the West. Israelis rightly believe that even if there were a truly moderate Palestinian leadership, it would likely be unable to quell the rising tide of militant Islamists. After all, even Egypt — led by a seemingly stable regime that already signed a peace agreement with Israel — fell in a revolution subsequently hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no reason for Israel to believe that a far weaker Palestinian Authority, already engaged in an on-again-off-again civil war with Hamas, would survive.
Then there is the stark reality that Mahmoud Abbas does not want to negotiate but instead wants to use the United Nations against Israel. This is a reflection of the will of his people; the Palestinians are in no mood to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel because they still believe they can have the whole proverbial pie and achieve the elimination of Israel eventually. This culture of denial and hatred has not softened in recent years. When asked more fundamental ideological questions surrounding Israel’s existence, 72 percent said it was “right” to deny Jews have a long history in Jerusalem, 61 percent endorsed naming streets after suicide bombers, and 53 percent said it was “right” to teach songs in Palestinian schools that talk about hating Jews.
And then there is the global context, where Israel has resigned itself to the reality that the United Nations has lost any semblance of moral authority. The UN, which in November 1947 voted to partition the land into a Jewish and Arab state, now condemns Israel for building apartments in Jerusalem while refusing to formally censure the Syrian government for ruthlessly slaughtering tens of thousands of its own citizens. In fact, the UN has passed more than 320 resolutions condemning Israel, while since 2006 the UN Human Rights Council has singled out Israel on 27 separate occasions, in resolutions that grant effective impunity to Hamas, Hezbollah, and their state sponsors. Through Israeli eyes, the hypocritical righteous indignation reserved solely for Israel is systematic and unyielding, no matter what concessions Israel offers.
While there is a constant din of voices that frequently and mistakenly grumble that there now exists a window of opportunity for peacemaking, they are chasing illusions set to fit their pre-determined narrative. The window they see through their selective lens is in fact a wall. Unless there is a substantial change in Palestinian red lines, peace and a two-state solution that will end the historic conflict will remain a long way off.
No matter the coalition that Netanyahu cobbles together in the coming weeks, it will not change the aforementioned fundamental issues that prevent progress on the path towards peace. In political reality, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas are motivated to make concessions where little public support exists. Therefore, President Obama should think hard before elevating the Palestinian-Israeli peace process to the front burner as he did at the beginning of his first term. There are more pressing concerns facing American interests in the wider Middle East, such as Iran, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now apparently Mali. The fate of the peace process will have no impact on the stability of those countries or on Iran’s incessant march towards a nuclear weapons capability. At least Barack Obama can take solace in the fact that unlike his first term, he now has the benefit of exceptionally low expectations. In other words — no progress, no problem.
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