Another Palestine-dominated election goes nowhere

Israel’s February 10 Knesset elections are all about the Palestinian issue. Yet the outcome is not likely to produce a breakthrough with the Palestinians in any direction. Voters and observers can assess the various party platforms based on a wide spectrum of Israeli reactions to Palestinian developments. But they should be warned that most of this is hot air.

Take for example Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. It is likely to register the biggest gains in this election by declaring "no citizenship without loyalty" and demanding loyalty oaths and compulsory national service from Palestinian citizens of Israel (and from ultra-orthodox Jews). Coming in the aftermath of Israel’s war in Gaza, which Israeli Arabs angrily condemned and Jews supported enthusiastically, Lieberman’s slogan has proven a vote-getter. Yet no one anticipates that Yisrael Beitenu, if it becomes a coalition partner, will actually be able to implement its policy; in any case, the High Court of Justice would almost certainly disallow it.

Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud, which might well form the next coalition, promise to do a more thorough job next time we go to war with Hamas in Gaza and to promulgate an "economic peace" with the PLO in the West Bank. Yet the Israeli security establishment will almost certainly balk at the idea of a war aimed at eliminating Hamas and will explain to Netanyahu that after Hamas we will encounter even more extreme Islamists in Gaza while the entire world condemns us. And pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu’s coalition partners and the Israeli public is likely to ensure that Netanyahu, however grudgingly, offers the West Bank Palestinians more than investments.

Kadima leader Tzipi Livni promises voters that she will continue the Annapolis process of peace negotiations with leaders of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Throughout 2008, Livni, as foreign minister, and PM Ehud Olmert got virtually nowhere with these negotiations even though they could look forward to the support of a relatively dovish Knesset. The next Knesset is certain to be more hawkish, and Livni’s coalition partners less willing. Why should we believe she will be more successful in 2009?

The Labor party, traditionally the flag-bearer of a two-state solution, is downplaying that message this time around because its leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, apparently continues to believe we "don’t have a partner" and would rather run as "mister defense" after ostensibly teaching Hamas a lesson in Gaza.

The minority far right says no to everything but settlements, yet can hardly be blamed for the sins of the majority center-right and center-left. Meretz on the Zionist far left wants peace but won’t be in the coalition. The Arab parties want Israel to cease being Jewish, thereby placing themselves beyond the Israeli political pale.

To complete this depressing picture, not a single Zionist party is suggesting that we contemplate offering to talk to Hamas in Gaza, despite the growing recognition that this is an inevitable development that could provide considerable tactical advantages. No parties are suggesting we stop waging economic warfare against Gaza, even though this strategy has failed totally and can even be deemed counterproductive. Not a single party is running on a platform of prioritizing peace negotiations with Syria, even though this is potentially a far more promising track at the regional strategic level than more fruitless talks with the Palestinians.

Finally, most distressing yet most anticipated of all, these elections and the fragmented and fragile coalition they produce will offer yet another round of confirmation that Israel’s political engine is fueled by the Palestinian issue–yet Israel’s political system is congenitally incapable of solving it.