A dangerous lurch to the right

Public opinion polls in Israel on the eve of elections indicate an alarming lurch to the right, corresponding to a trend of radicalization that has characterized both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion in the last nine years.

The polls show that the Labor party, which was once the dominant party in Israel and was responsible for the breakthrough of the Oslo accords in 1993, now ranks only fourth. Labor has been overtaken by the Yisrael Beitenu party of far-right extremist Avigdor Lieberman, as well as both the right-wing Likud and the governing Kadima parties. Most probably, then, the new Israeli government will be formed out of a coalition of rightwing parties and will be dominated by rightwing politics.

This radicalization of public opinion is not confined to Israel. The same dynamic can be detected on the Palestinian side. The latest poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center shows a similar trend on the Palestinian side, where there has been a systematic decline in public support for the peace process and negotiations accompanied by a decline in public support for parties like Fateh and leaders like Mahmoud Abbas, who have identified themselves with the peace process.

There are two main factors contributing to this trend of radicalization in the two societies. It’s easy to draw significant statistical correlations between such changes in public opinion and both the failure of and setbacks in peace negotiations and spikes in violence. Recently, we’ve had both in the same period of time. The failure of the Annapolis peace process, which was sponsored by former US President George W. Bush, who promised an agreement before the end of his term, was followed almost immediately by an unprecedented level of violence during the war on Gaza.

The combination of the failure of negotiations and the unusual increase in the level of violence clearly resulted in an increase in the popularity of parties and political personalities opposed to the peace process and who promote the use of force and violence as a means of achieving objectives.

This is also not an isolated development. The last 15 years have witnessed similar dramatic changes accompanying or resulting from spikes in violence and setbacks in the political processes. The failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the subsequent outbreak of violence, which included devastating Israeli military incursions and re-occupations of West Bank areas and a massive wave of Palestinian resistance, led to a similar shift to the right in Israel and a corresponding decline in support for Yasser Arafat and Fateh in favor of the opposition, which culminated in Hamas’ victory in the second Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

Secondly, the experience of almost two decades also shows that whenever Palestinian-Israeli relations are subject to meaningful and relatively balanced engagement by outside actors, things move, however slowly, in a positive direction and there is a decrease in violence and an increase in public support for negotiations as the means to achieve objectives. This was most clearly shown in the period when the Americans initiated the international peace conference in Madrid in 1991 and with the Oslo agreements of 1993-1994.

It was shown in the negative when President Bush, followed by the rest of the international community, decided to abandon peace efforts in 2001. The consequences of that decision continue to reverberate.