Whoever wins Israel's election, result will be more of the same

Benny Gantz's new centre-left alliance is unlikely to be the game-changer Israeli and Palestinian people need so badly.

by
    File: Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief, delivers his first political speech at the party campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019 [File: Amir Cohen/Reuters]
    File: Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief, delivers his first political speech at the party campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019 [File: Amir Cohen/Reuters]

    What would Martians make of Israel's election campaign?

    An alien from Mars landing in Israel this election season would have a hard time believing the country is engaged in a violent conflict with millions of people under military occupation for over 50 years. Looking at the campaign propaganda and listening to candidate speeches, our guest from outer space might think he had stumbled upon a television reality programme of the Big Brother variety, with viewers tensely waiting to see the last survivor.

    Would it be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the new star of Israeli politics, former military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz? To an outsider, Israel is simply an enlightened Western European-style democracy, with voters torn between a conservative-capitalist regime and a social-democratic one. The bitter conflict with the Palestinians barely merits a stammered mention.

    If Netanyahu's Likud party loses on April 9, it will blame Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Rightly so, for deciding to indict Netanyahu on charges of corruption. It would also rightly blame the media for refusing to grant Netanyahu a celebrity discount. Were it not for the cloud of criminalityhovering over the Likud leader, the party would be soaring in the polls rather than barely maintaining its current strength.

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    The apartheid regime in the West Bank, the humanitarian crisis generated by a blockade of two million Gaza Palestinians, the threat to Israel's democratic identity and the missed opportunity of the Arab League's historic peace initiative - all these are virtually absent from the public agenda.

    The Blue and White generals' party, led by Gantz, two other former military chiefs - Lt Generals (res) Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi - and by the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, could have focussed their campaigns on the government's failure to deal with these crucial issues.

    The three retired generals could have taken advantage of their stellar military records to tell the public what most senior Israeli defence officials believe - that their military is strong enough to defend Israel from any border the government chooses. They could have declared what most members of the intelligence community say behind closed doors - that the continued occupation is Israel's biggest strategic threat. They could have insisted courageously that Israel's Arab citizens and their Knesset representatives are legitimate government partners.

    However, such messages signal "leftism", a term denoting danger and treason in Israel almost as much as the word "Arab" does. Every rookie political adviser knows there is no deadlier landmine on the way to the ballot box than the title "leftist".

    Netanyahu has managed to turn talk of peace, coexistence and reconciliation by his rivals into a symptom of advanced senility, at best, or the ultimate expression of dangerous defeatism. The bad name that the right has given the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution explains why Gantz and his friends have sought refuge behind the hollow slogan "there is no right and left".

    To prove their bona fides, they have also rejected any option of forming a political bloc with the Arab parties, and announced instead that they would invite the Likud to join a government under their leadership.

    Optimists on the Israeli left presume/hope that this anaemic strategy is the brainchild of pollsters and spin doctors who regard the end, ie taking power, as justifying the means - perpetuating occupation rhetoric. Peace lovers surmise that once elected, Gantz and company would shake off the settlement lobby pressure, which has cowed the Likud for years and blocked any way out of the status quo.

    They believe that a coalition led by centre-left parties could freeze construction in the outposts and isolated settlements and dry up funding for settlements located outside the main settlement blocs. As the Blue and White party platform promises, it will advance separation from the Palestinians.

    However, it is careful not to utter the words "Palestinian state" and rejects any unilateral measures such as the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza. That only leaves separation under an agreement with the Palestinians on a two-state solution. The Gantz-Lapid party has pledged that any proposed peace agreement would require a referendum or a special Knesset majority.

    But, for now, there is no chance that even a tiny withdrawal from the territories could garner a two-thirds majority absent the support of the Arab parties, those same parties that Blue and White has ruled out in advance. In addition, the record of several top Blue and White candidates, primarily among them Yaalon, and former Netanyahu hardline aides Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, augurs a painful headache for Gantz if he ever tries to seek his party's approval for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

    Any form of Palestinian independence would entail evicting at least 150,000 settlers from their homes, dividing sovereignty over Jerusalem and a just resolution of the refugee problem. An unlikely alignment of four stars would have to occur for this to happen.

    The first, a willingness of the Israeli people and their elected officials to sign an agreement guaranteed to set off deep social unrest in Israel verging on civil war.

    The second one would require a Palestinian agreement to declare an end of all their demands, including full implementation of the right of the 1948 refugees to return to Israel. Since there is a lack of consensus in this regard, the domestic price will also be extremely heavy.

    The third star would require wealthy Sunni states to support the Palestinian peace camp and cease backing rejectionist organisations, risking a clash with those opposed to normalisation with Israel.

    The fourth, and perhaps most important star, would require a willingness of the US administration and Congress to leverage their influence on the sides and risk a deep crisis with the evangelical leadership and major Jewish donors.

    No Israeli leader is able to change the reality in the Middle East conflict without vigorous involvement of the White House. US presidents have played key roles in bringing about major Israeli historic shifts over the years - Israel's 1956 withdrawal from the Sinai, its 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, and 2005 pullout from Gaza.

    The fight waged by former President George Bush Sr against Israeli settlements contributed to the victory of the Israeli centre-left led by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, and in turn to the Oslo Accords. The prospect of President Donald Trump, who never spares any effort to bolster Israel's right-wing regime, lining up alongside the current centre-left bloc led by Gantz begs strong belief.

    Unfortunately, Gantz and his right-wing colleagues seem to be the "more of the same" party rather than the game-changers the Israeli and the Palestinian people need so badly.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

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