Israel’s upcoming election: Where did the occupation go?

On the eve of its fourth election in two years, Israel is still not talking about the issues that really matter.

Labourers hang a Likud party election campaign banner depicting party leader Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, ahead of a March 23 ballot, in Jerusalem March 10, 2021. The writing in Hebrew reads: 'Next Prime Minister: Lapid or Netanyahu". [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

On March 23, Israel will hold legislative elections for the fourth time in two years. With less than a week to the election, pundits are still reluctant to predict its outcome, as all polls point to a tight race between the supporters of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents.

Failure by any of the centrist or left-wing parties, such as Blue and White or Meretz, to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold could leave Netanyahu in power. Failure by the far-right Religious Zionist Party of Bezalel Smotrich to cross the threshold, meanwhile, would likely deprive Netanyahu of a Knesset majority and bring an end to his 12-year rule.

While it is indeed difficult to predict the exact composition of the next Israeli Knesset, the electoral agendas and campaigns of the major parties taking part in the race reveal a lot about the troubling direction towards which the Israeli society is heading.

Whether Netanyahu’s supporters or his opponents succeed in securing a parliamentary majority, the outcome will be a coalition government. If neither electoral block succeeds in securing the 61-seat majority in the parliament it needs to form a government, the voters will be dragged to the balloting stations for a fifth time in the coming months.

Together, the five parties on Israel’s political right – Netanyahu’s Likud, Gideon Saar’s New Hope, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism – are polling at 59-60 seats, with 15-16 seats forecast for the ultra-Orthodox parties that traditionally ally themselves with the right.

While these parties have strikingly different attitudes towards Netanyahu, there are no discernible differences among them on issues that actually matter – the occupation and the state of the Israeli democracy.

In their electoral campaigns, these parties all but completely ignored the most fundamental problems facing Israel today. In fact, even most of the centrist and left-wing parties chose to sweep these issues under the carpet in their efforts to expand their base and oust Netanyahu from power.

Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, its alleged human rights and international law violations, and questions about the legitimacy of its democracy are not at the forefront of any political party’s agenda, because these are not major concerns for an overwhelming majority of Israeli voters.

The prominent Israeli politicians’ reactions to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) recent decision to greenlight an investigation into Israel’s alleged war crimes in the occupied territories and settlements demonstrated the Israeli attitudes towards these issues clearly.

Like Netanyahu, Liberman, Bennett and Smotrich condemned the court and accused it of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel. New Hope party chair Saar, meanwhile, lambasted the “shameful” decision to investigate “the world’s most moral army”.

And the leaders of right-wing parties were not the only ones who treated the court’s ruling as an opportunity to defend Israel’s occupation and settlement policies. Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, who portrays himself as leader of the moderate centre, called the decision “disgraceful anti-Semitism”, adding that he was “proud of the IDF soldiers and officers defending us against the threat of terrorism”. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White alliance is campaigning for centrist votes, was just as fierce, claiming the court lacked jurisdiction to allow such a probe and arguing that the Israeli legal system had repeatedly proven its competence in dealing with violations by the military. Even Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli stood up for the Israeli military and the court system.

Meretz was the only Zionist party whose leader Nitzan Horowitz rejected the criticism of the ICC, saying it had valid grounds for its decision. However, Meretz is hanging on by a thread, with its estimated 150,000 voters barely sufficient to push it over the electoral threshold. That voter pool also, more or less, represents all Israeli Jews concerned about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians living under its rule and the total disappearance of notions such as “peace”, “human rights” and “conflict resolution” from the Israeli discourse.

In a Hebrew-language study recently published by the Molad: The Centre for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, Israeli psychology professors Daniel Bar-Tal and Amiram Raviv attempted to explain the reasons behind the Israeli society’s – and hence the Israeli political classes’ – support for the occupation and the state’s violent policies towards Palestinians.

The two psychologists argued that as a result of long-term indoctrination, Israeli Jews accepted as fact a narrative in which all Arabs are inherently violent, untrustworthy and determined to destroy Israel. Within the same narrative, Israeli Jews are cast as a moral people whose efforts to achieve sustainable peace are being thwarted by their war-mongering neighbours.

According to Bar-Tal and Raviv, due to this narrative that has been hammered in to their minds for decades, Israeli Jews believe it is they who are under attack by the Palestinians. Hence they believe, to avoid a repetition of the Holocaust, they must be strong, united and willing to do anything necessary, including turning a blind eye to human rights and international law violations by their state.

Renowned Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky once wrote that a conflict ends on the day a society realises the price it will pay for a peace agreement is lower than the cost of the ongoing conflict.

Unfortunately, as the Israeli political parties’ reluctance to discuss the occupation and its consequences in their electoral campaigns demonstrate, the Israeli society is yet to reach this realisation.

So who wins Israel’s upcoming election, and forms its next government, is of little consequence in regards to the most fundamental questions facing not only the Israeli society, but also the Palestinian people who have been living under occupation for almost 54 years. For peace and democracy lovers, after March 23, with or without Netanyahu, it will be business as usual.

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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