War and violence always have a direct effect on elections. Wars account for dramatic shifts in voter preferences, and radical leaders and parties often poll much higher after a round of sharp violence than in normal times. Minority ethnic groups are therefore often able to sway the balance of power between major competing forces.
This appears to have been precisely what has happened in Israel’s recent election. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party and the even harder right Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu (‘Israel is Our Home’) party achieved a dominant result that saw Labour, the dominant party throughout Israel’s history, consigned to a lowly fourth place.
Throughout the campaign, Israeli leaders competed over who would deal more firmly (read: violently) with the Palestinians. In the aftermath of Israel’s assault on Gaza, Palestinians hoped that Israel would choose a leader who would focus on the need to end the suffering, lift the siege, and begin rebuilding. It appears that just the opposite has happened.
The last time that Israeli elections were so obviously affected by violence was in 1996, when polling results shifted wildly in the run-up to the vote, finally allowing Netanyahu a razor-thin win over acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Competing against an older Peres (who had taken over after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin) Netanyahu dyed his hair white to appear more mature, and then took advantage of a badly handled mini-war and the anger of Israel’s Arab voters.
Now Peres is Israel’s president, while Netanyahu heads Likud. But not much has changed: badly handled wars, incomplete peace talks, and a boycott by Israel’s Arab voters made this 2009 election seem almost like a carbon copy of 1996, when Rabin’s assassination ended the Palestinian-Israeli talks at a crucial time and Peres’ ill-advised war on South Lebanon reduced his large lead almost to a tie with Netanyahu. The anger of northern Israel’s Arab citizens at the killing of their brethren across the border led to a boycott that cost Peres the few thousand votes he needed to win.
Israel’s 2009 election is similar in many ways. It follows two controversial wars (although the current nominees were not directly involved in the 2006 war with Hezbollah). It also follows serious negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which are said to have moved both sides much closer to each other.
But wars and violence move electorates to the hawkish right, and Israel’s operation in Gaza was no exception. Many Palestinian citizens of Israel, disgusted by the large-scale casualties inflicted on their brethren — and believing that to vote would mean to endorse the political system responsible for the carnage — stayed home once again.
The most important element now is the new administration in the United States. The decisive victory of a candidate who opposed the Iraq war and favours direct talks with Iran will no doubt have a major influence on US-Israel relations and the peace process. The appointment of George Mitchell, who opposes Israel’s West Bank settlements, and Mitchell’s decision to open an office in Jerusalem, speaks volumes about what the new Israeli government should expect from the Obama administration.
The Arab world is also in a state of flux after an emotional 22 days of Israel’s televised bombardment of Gaza. Millions of Arabs throughout the Middle East took to the streets, so angered by the inability of anyone to stop the bloodshed that a huge schism has been created. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority beat a hasty retreat from their moderate and accommodating positions.
The major stumbling block for the world in trying to relieve the suffering in Gaza is how to finesse the biggest bloc in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ismael Hanieh’s Islamist list of Reform and Change. This challenge has become more interesting with European countries’ willingness to deal with a united Palestinian government that includes Hamas’ Hanieh. President Barack Obama’s pragmatism and refusal to embrace the Bush administration’s "war on terror" will also be a key determinant of the outcome.
But, beyond band-aid solutions for the deep injuries inflicted on Gaza, Palestinians’ biggest concern is to ensure that Israel’s attempt to split Gaza from the West Bank does not become permanent. Egypt and the Palestinian Authority have been made to look bad in the eyes of the Arab world, owing to their refusal to make Egypt responsible for Gaza and possibly Jordan for the West Bank. But that proposal was a trap that would have destroyed the possibility of an independent, contiguous Palestinian state.
Despite the election results, Palestinians still hope to re-establish momentum in resolving the remaining points of disagreement with Israel. While an international consensus now supports a two-state solution, settling the status of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees will be the main obstacles facing the two sides.
The only hope now for resuming negotiations is the old "only Nixon could open up China" argument, meaning that only a truly hard-right Israeli leader would have the credibility to make peace with the Palestinians. But it is now clear to historians that Richard Nixon was determined to make his overture to China from the moment he began his presidency. Sadly, the signs that any of Israel’s potential prime ministers are truly prepared to take so bold a step are few.