Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was undiplomatic and only partially correct when he recently asserted that the Israelis who were skeptical about the peace process were mainly the recent immigrants from the Soviet Union and those from the Arab world. It's true that many Russian immigrants have not yet absorbed the "liberal" notions currently prevalent in the Western world and tend to look at Israel's Arab neighbors with a large dose of "realism" that goes back to their Soviet experience. And many Israelis who originated in Arab countries feel they have a better understanding of the Arabs than do Israeli Ashkenazi liberals who may be harboring unjustified illusions.
But the skepticism about the peace process in Israel is not limited to them. Over the years, this skepticism has embraced increasingly wider segments of Israeli society. The election results in recent years clearly prove this trend. The Israeli political scene is shifting to the right.
The peace process has suffered five successive blows that have led to a growing disenchantment of many who at one time or another saw themselves as part of the peace camp. The "shrinking left" in Israeli politics is no accident. First, much of the enthusiasm that accompanied the Oslo Accords has evaporated with the recognition that these agreements, despite the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasir Arafat, were a failure. Second, the unilateral withdrawal from the Lebanon security zone, initially a very popular move, encouraged Palestinian terrorists and resulted in the empowerment of Hezbollah in Lebanon and eventually led to the Second Lebanon War.
Third, the wave of Palestinian terror during the second intifada killed 1,000 Israelis and had to be put down by the entry of the Israel Defense Forces into Judea and Samaria. Fourth, the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, widely supported at the time, is now seen as a tragic mistake by many. And fifth, the Second Lebanon War resulted, in effect, in Hezbollah taking over Lebanon. The appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on our northern border earlier this month only served as a reminder to many of the danger threatening Israel from the north. There is also the danger from Gaza in the south. And who would want to contemplate a similar danger establishing itself in the east?
There may be many reasons for the demise of the Labor Party, but the chief one is that it has strayed from the mainstream of public opinion in the country. The party, which for years captured the mainstream of public opinion, positioned itself as the party of peace with the Oslo Accords and never recovered its position in the center. In time it became almost indistinguishable from Meretz on the far left, and these two parties are all that remains of the political left in Israel. Kadima very cleverly exploited this situation, posing as slightly left of center, the traditional Labor Party position, and cannibalized Labor in the last election.
As skepticism about the peace process grows, the most important political contest at the moment is between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the two major parties on the right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost lost the last elections, but not to Kadima's Tzipi Livni, as she claimed, but to Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman. It was he who cut into Likud's lead in the final weeks before the election, capturing Likud votes, mainly in the south, with his insistence that the IDF should have finished the job in Gaza, while Netanyahu remained silent on the subject.
Now that Netanyahu is promoting the negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, preparing Israel for "painful concessions," adopting the Palestinian designation for Judea and Samaria as the West Bank, and claiming that he can reach an agreement within a year, he risks losing votes to Lieberman. Lieberman is far from an ideal choice for many Likud voters, but they may feel that if Netanyahu veers left they will have no other choice, and you can count on Lieberman to exploit this opportunity.
It seems it's not only Israelis who are increasingly skeptical about the peace process. The latest poll by the American Jewish Committee found that 76 percent of American Jews agree with the statement that the Arabs' aim is not the return of the occupied territories but rather the destruction of the State of Israel. If that is also the view of the Israeli public, it would explain a lot about the political scene in Israel at this time.
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