Analysis

Israeli Elections and the Big, Fat Palestinian Elephant in the Room

Hardened by terror and frustrated by failed peace efforts, Israelis don’t want to hear about the evils of occupation or ways of ending it

A Palestinian man carries the national flag during a demonstration near the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, February 8, 2019.
AFP

As of 2019, there are 6.7 million Jews in Israel, the occupied territories and Gaza, and 6.7 million Arabs, according to the latest official estimates.

Of the Arabs – or Palestinians, if you will – nearly 1.9 million are Israeli citizens, another 1.9 million live under a ruthless Hamas regime fixated on fighting Israel and 2.9 million live in the hybrid West Bank, under military occupation or the semi-autonomous rule of the Palestinian Authority.

An objective observer might surmise that Israel is caught between a rock and hard place, with a sword hanging over its head to boot. It won’t recapture Gaza but won’t release it from its stranglehold either. It won’t surrender the West Bank, for both religious and security reasons – and because Israelis are convinced that it would soon turn into another Gaza as well.

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Israel won’t annex the West Bank either, less because of concerns over the international backlash and more because such a move entails enfranchisement of the Palestinians, which would upset the demographic balance, upend Israel’s democracy and jeopardize the country’s continued existence as a Jewish state.

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An Israeli soldier following a demonstration against Jewish settlements in the West Bank village of Urif, February 15, 2019.
AFP

History shows that prolonged periods of relative – very relative – peace and quiet, however, are always a prelude to flare-ups of violence and significant loss of Israeli lives. Our dispassionate outsider might surmise, therefore, that Israelis are clamoring for a solution and pressing their leaders to come up with new ideas, especially during an election campaign. He (or she) couldn’t be more wrong.

The Palestinian problem, in fact, is hardly being mentioned, other than as a club with which the right browbeats leftist politicians and portrays them as defeatist and even treacherous. Politicians run away from discussing potential solutions – never mind actual peace – as if it was the plague. And it’s not because they’re all out of fresh ideas, though they are: They know the Israeli public is in collective denial and that voters won’t reward those who dare snap them out of their reverie. Those who are might be tempted to cry out “The emperor has no clothes” will first be shushed and then sent home, consigned to political oblivion.

Exceptions to the rule can be found on the fringes alone, from the hard right that advocates annexation come what may, to the hard left, both Zionist and Arab-Israeli, which is gradually gravitating toward a one-state solution – with all its inherent risks. But in most of the Jewish political arena, from right to left, the Palestinian issue is like a dead man zone, which no man dare enter. If pressed to the wall, supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu will praise the current status quo as the best of all possible worlds. But given their opponents’ fear of upsetting voters and being branded traitors, they don’t get pressed very often.

Israelis are not blind to the fact that there is a big, fat Palestinian elephant in their living room. After decades of devoting election campaigns to discussing what to do with it, they now prefer to go about their lives and ignore it. At best, it will disappear on its own and at worst it will need to be subdued. But the odds are that it will remain inert and paralyzed, with occasional spasms meant to remind the world of its existence. As Scarlett O’Hara famously said in “Gone With the Wind,” Israel will think about it tomorrow.

It’s not that Israelis don’t want peace either. Most polls show that a solid majority of Israelis, and a distinct plurality of Israelis Jews, support a two-state solution, while only a small minority backs outright annexation. With all due deference to President Donald Trump’s impending and “ultimate” deal, peace is regarded today as a pie in the sky aspiration for the far future. In practice, most Israelis believe that achieving it is a mission impossible, and therefore unworthy of their attention or energy.

They have arrived at this conclusion based on what they perceive as Israel’s countless and futile efforts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, from Camp David I to Oslo, from Camp David II to Annapolis, from Jimmy Carter to John Kerry et al. Many on the right are convinced the Palestinians regard “peace” as a gateway to Israel’s destruction, but even those that reject such views now regard the most minimal Palestinian demands as exceeding Israel’s maximal concessions.

Israelis still carry the scars and trauma of the second intifada, which ravaged Israel at the start of the last decade, when suicide bombings terrified them, turned their cities to hell, their buses to death traps and their Palestinian neighbors to inhuman adversaries, unworthy of concessions and incapable of compromise.

FILE PHOTO: Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993.
\ REUTERS FILE PHOTO/ REUTERS

And while the world might regard the occupation and Palestinian violence as chicken and egg, Israelis have managed to convince themselves it’s the other way round: It’s not the occupation that sows the seeds of terror and violence, but rather the Palestinian propensity for terror and violence that justifies and mandates continued occupation.

The savagery of the suicide bombings, coupled with the despondence over past failures to achieve peace, have effectively erased whatever remained of the Israeli left’s compassion for Palestinians and sympathy for their plight. The injustice of the occupation played a prominent role in driving left-wing support for Palestinian independence and/or territorial compromise in the first few years after the territories were occupied during the 1967 war. But perceived Palestinian intransigence, coupled with the traumas of terror, have gradually hardened the most leftist of hearts. Until they learn to behave, Israelis tell themselves, the Palestinians have got it coming.

The flip side of this post-1967 perspective was the dire assessment of many leading figures on the left, from Yeshayahu Leibowitz to Amos Oz, from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin, of the inevitable corrosive influence of the occupation on Israeli society and democracy. The impact of lording over another people and sending Israel’s soldiers to police them, they warned, could not remain quarantined in the streets of Nablus and Ramallah; it would permeate throughout pre-1967 Israel, distorting its democracy, brutalizing its politics and propelling it to embrace Jewish nationalism and ethnocentrism.

FILE PHOTO: The scene of an attack during the second Intifada, Jerusalem, Israel, 2001.
Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

But by the time this pervasive leftist pessimism was fully borne out and vindicated – as Netanyahu’s last term in office amply shows – moderate Israelis have themselves forgotten the direct link their predecessors made between cause and effect. Even the most moderate of Israeli politicians no longer contends that occupation is the original virus responsible for many of the ailments plaguing Israeli democracy today. They prefer to blame Netanyahu and, in doing so, to convince themselves that his removal would produce a catchall cure.

In this regard, there is some truth in describing the Israeli left as well as its political leaders as “defeatist” – not vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but toward their political rivals on the right.

The numbers are indeed daunting: For most of the past 40 years, Labor and its allies have either been in the opposition or shared power as a junior or equal partner in coalitions with Likud. Since the first Likud victory 42 years ago, the “left” has held power for only six years – and even those were due to the decidedly hawkish, militaristic and decidedly non-leftist appeal of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, two former army chiefs of staff.

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon attend a news conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Israel,  August 27, 2014.
\ NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

In the April 9 ballot, the role of former army commander challenging right-wing hegemony is being filled by Benny Gantz, who has shunned politicians such as Tzipi Livni for being too “leftist” but embraced the ultra-right former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who believes the very concept of peace is a dangerous illusion. Gantz is following in the footsteps of Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who initially lurched to the right after his election but has since re-centered himself after alienating large parts of his own base. The upshot, however, is that when the left tries to emulate the right, voters tend to prefer the original to the impersonation.

Even the distinctly ideological left-wing Meretz, while formally remaining committed to a two-state solution, is wary of the potential fallout of advocating forcefully in its favor. Like Labor, it has selected a Knesset slate heavy on social advocacy and general support for democratic principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence – as opposed to the controversial nation-state law – while steering clear of the injustice of occupation and the evils it has wrought on Israeli society and democracy.

Instead, Netanyahu’s rivals have fallen into his trap of making the elections all about him rather than the issues themselves. The current election campaign has so far been marked by Netanyahu’s efforts to harness his position in order to tout his achievements – a risky endeavor, as proven by his recent scandal-plagued and mishap-rich participation in the U.S.-brokered anti-Iranian summit in Warsaw. And it has been dominated by anticipation for, and speculation over, the attorney general’s impending decision whether to indict the prime minister for bribery.

Once the decision is made public, apparently within the next two weeks, the preoccupation with Netanyahu’s legal predicament is bound to reach fever pitch. The few and isolated efforts to place the Palestinian problem on center stage will be swept away by the expected tsunami of saturation media coverage of Netanyahu’s affairs and the politicians’ tendency to go where the news takes them.

The Palestinian elephant will continue to be ignored, consigned to a collective Israeli attitude reminiscent of the Ottoman fleet that was sent by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century to reconnoiter the island of Malta and to ascertain the reason for its steadfast resistance to his superior forces. The famous response of the commander sent on the mission was to tell his sultan “Malta yok” – Malta does not exist.

It will take a leader made of sterner stuff than the current offerings in order to jolt Israelis out of their collective denial – unless the Palestinians do so earlier, at deadly cost. Until then, Israelis will continue to adhere to their “groupthink” – a phenomenon of mass psychology first detailed by the late Prof. Irving Janis of Yale and Berkeley, who wrote that it occurs “when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”

In societies overtaken by groupthink, a term derived from George Orwell’s “1984,” Janis wrote that “independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.” More than the powerful lobby of Jewish settlers, the rabble-rousing nationalism espoused by the right and the general frustration with efforts to achieve peace, it is the willful ignorance of the Israeli public that is the chief enabler of the occupation and the ongoing disenfranchisement of the Palestinian “out-group.” Netanyahu and his allies have come to learn and exploit the Israeli groupthink to their heart’s content, and for the perpetuation of their rule.