Despite Palestinian rocket attacks and rising tensions between Israel and Hamas, Tuesday’s Israeli election, unlike many before it, is not about the Palestinian issue. In fact, the issue barely featured in a campaign season that focused heavily on personalities, rather than policies. More than anything else, it’s been about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz, the former army chief who recently entered Israeli politics and now heads the centrist “Blue and White” coalition.
Partly because this election has primarily become a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, the campaign largely ignored policy questions, particularly concerning Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There also appeared to be little reason to debate these policies because both of the leading candidates for the premiership, Netanyahu and Gantz, seem to share a broadly similar opinion on them, with both men supporting the Israeli army’s continued control over much of the West Bank (at least for the foreseeable future), and Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
But Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White coalition do, in fact, have different perspectives on the future of the West Bank. Likud wants Israel to annex large areas of the West Bank — Netanyahu himself publicly pledged, in a bid to appeal to wavering right-wing voters mere days before the election, that he would annex all Jewish settlements there if reelected — while the Blue and White coalition does not (except for the major settlement blocs). Yet this significant disagreement was rarely even noted, let alone debated, in the run-up to the election.
This situation represents a major change: For roughly four decades following Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War, the question of what to do with these territories and their Palestinian inhabitants dominated Israel’s political agenda.
Israeli elections were once fierce contests between competing approaches to the territories under Israel’s control. The left, led by the Labor party, advocated territorial concessions in exchange for peace agreements — “land for peace.” The right, led by Likud, opposed territorial withdrawals and championed Israel’s claim to possess, and populate, the entire “Land of Israel.”
This political contest reached a fever pitch in the 1990s after the Oslo peace process began. Although most Israelis initially supported the peace process, they soon became bitterly divided over it as terrorist attacks increased. In November 1995 a Jewish religious extremist who wanted to stop the peace process assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In an election for the premiership the following year, Netanyahu narrowly defeated Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, partly by claiming, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” Despite being a fierce critic of the Oslo Accords, however, Netanyahu did not renounce the peace process. Instead, his election campaign — run by an American political consultant and Republican operative — promised Israelis a “secure peace.”
So what changed?
Netanyahu’s first term in office as prime minister was marred by scandal, Israeli-Palestinian violence and a faltering peace process. Widely unpopular domestically, Netanyahu was trounced in the next election by Labor party leader, Ehud Barak, who persuaded many Israelis that he could make peace.
Peace, of course, never came. When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected an offer that most Israelis considered to be a very generous — but that he would have had a hard time selling to his own people — at the Camp David summit in July 2000, hosted by President Clinton, Israelis concluded they had “no partner for peace,” as Barak himself put it. And when the Second Intifada erupted months later, and became much more violent than the first, the Oslo peace process died, and with it the hopes of many Israelis that peace was attainable.
Terrorized by Palestinian suicide bombings in their cities, the majority of Israelis just wanted security and separation — physical and psychological — from the Palestinians. The Israeli government built a long, winding barrier in the West Bank to help accomplish this. It worked. Suicide attacks did decline, and the barrier has also allowed many Israelis to conveniently ignore the suffering of Palestinians living on the other side of the barrier in the West Bank.
The Israeli public’s desire to separate themselves from Palestinians in the West Bank, however, has been frustrated by the perceived failure of Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The possibility of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank quickly lost its popular appeal.
By the time Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, the Israeli public was resigned to living with the status quo, however much they disliked it. All Israel could do, most Israelis believed, was manage its conflict with the Palestinians and maintain the status quo.
If nothing else, Netanyahu has done this during his decade in office, much to the frustration of his domestic and foreign critics. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment — if you can call it that — has been to shore up the belief among Israeli Jews that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is impossible in the near future, if at all.
Since most Israelis have given up on the peace process and stopped believing that peace is within reach, they’ve stopped arguing about whether Israel should withdraw from much of the West Bank. This popular consensus has reduced the salience of the Palestinian issue in Israeli politics, and allowed Israelis to focus on other things, like official corruption or the high cost of living.
When Israelis go to the polls on April 9, the Palestinian issue won’t be their biggest concern and, for most, it won’t determine which party they vote for. Whether it should or not is another question.
Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, and the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. He is also the director of Northeastern University’s Middle East Studies program. His latest book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be published by Oxford University Press in May.