Israeli voters have to choose between two radically different visions for the future of their country when they go to the polls on 17 March. The rightwing ruling Likud party faces a challenge from the Zionist Union, which was formed by a merger of the Labour party and a small centrist party. Isaac Herzog, the leader of the new party, is a moderate left-of-centre politician who prefers to focus on the socioeconomic issues that are high on the voters’ agenda. His centre-right deputy, Tzipi Livni, was the minister of justice and chief negotiator with the Palestinians in the outgoing coalition government. Their new party is committed to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority with the aim of reaching agreement on a two-state solution to the conflict. Its platform also pledges to submit an Israeli peace initiative to the Arab League.
The Likud, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, is committed to permanent Israeli control over most of the West Bank, and this precludes the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Roughly two-thirds of Israelis used to favour a two-state solution. But after the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000, the majority tended to believe that there was no Palestinian partner for peace. Consequently, as the polls show, on domestic issues Herzog has the edge, but on foreign policy and security Netanyahu has a larger following. And his policy is to perpetuate the status quo. Netanyahu said this week that he now regards his past commitment to a two-state solution as “simply irrelevant”.
Netanyahu’s strategic and diplomatic intransigence is underpinned by the revisionist Zionist ideology of Greater Israel. This ideology implicitly rejects any Palestinian national rights over the West Bank and explicitly asserts the right of the Jewish people to the “whole land of Israel”. It follows that, in this view, Israel’s control over the West Bank is not an occupation but the legitimate exercise of historic entitlement. In Netanyahu’s narrative, the Palestinians pose an existential threat to Israel’s Jewish citizenry; western support for Palestinian statehood only accentuates this threat; and the best way to counter it is to accelerate the building of Jewish homes and Jewish infrastructure on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
An argument repeatedly used by Netanyahu and his hawk-dominated Likud party against retreat on the West Bank is the Gaza precedent. In August 2005 a Likud-led government headed by Ariel Sharon carried out a “unilateral disengagement”, withdrawing the Israel Defense Forces and all 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip. Netanyahu led the opposition to this move from within the Likud, forcing Sharon to quit and form a breakaway party named Kadima.
In Netanyahu’s narrative, the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, the firing of rockets and mortars across the border, and terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians – were all a direct result of Sharon’s move. If Israel repeats that mistake by retreating on the West Bank, warns Netanyahu, the result would be the same: this territory too would turn into a launch pad for terrorist attacks by Islamic fanatics against Israel.
Netanyahu’s narrative completely distorts the motives behind the withdrawal, the manner in which it was implemented, and the consequences of the move.
Ariel Sharon presented the disengagement from Gaza as a contribution to the Quartet’s “road map”, but it was nothing of the sort. The road map called for negotiations and yet Sharon refused to negotiate: it envisaged an independent Palestinian state by the end of 2005 whereas he was determined to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. His real aim was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel so as to incorporate within them as much Palestinian territory with as few Palestinian inhabitants as possible. The first step was to withdraw from Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians; the second was to consolidate Israel’s control over the West Bank by building an illegal “security barrier” and separating East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.
When Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, won a free and fair election in January 2006, Sharon’s successors refused to recognise the new government and resorted to economic warfare to undermine it. They also sabotaged the national unity government formed by Hamas and Fatah in March 2007. This was a moderate government that offered to negotiate a long-term truce with Israel, but there was no one to talk to on the Israeli side. Shunning diplomacy, Israel encouraged Fatah to mount a coup to recapture power. Hamas pre-empted the coup by a violent seizure of power in Gaza in June 2007. Israel reacted to the counter-coup by imposing an illegal blockade that is still in force today.
The end result of the Israeli disengagement was to turn the Gaza strip into a veritable open-air prison. Attacks by Hamas and more radical Islamic factions were the unfortunate and entirely avoidable byproduct of this blockade and of the Israeli refusal to engage with the Palestinian leadership. It was not Islamic fanaticism but Israel’s own attempt to instigate a Palestinian civil war that caused the backlash. So the real lesson of the 2005 precedent is that only a negotiated settlement with the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people can put an end to the cycle of violence and bring peace and security to the citizens of Israel.
Over the past six years Israel has unleashed three major military assaults on the Gaza strip. These assaults have caused a staggering number of casualties, mostly civilian, and massive material and infrastructural damage, but inadvertently ended up enhancing Hamas’s popular appeal while leaving the underlying problems to fester.
Israeli generals speak about “mowing the lawn” in Gaza. This grim metaphor exposes the moral bankruptcy of Israel’s policy of relying exclusively on brute military force in dealing with what is essentially a political, and now sadly, a humanitarian problem. It implies doing something mechanically and systematically and without any end in sight. It also suggests that the next assault on the hapless inmates of the Israeli-made prison is just a matter of time.
There has to be a better way of achieving security for Israel’s citizens. The Zionist Union offers a clear alternative to a policy which has not only failed to bring security but is also eroding the foundations of Israeli democracy and turning the country into an international pariah. The main motive behind the Zionist Union’s policy is not to reward the Palestinians but to preserve the Jewish and democratic nature of the state of Israel. Moreover, the two sets of issues are closely related: reducing expenditure on West Bank settlements would free substantial resources that could be better spent on education, welfare and alleviating poverty at home. Socioeconomic concerns are more prominent in the current electoral campaign than the Palestinian issue. But this issue, more than any other, will shape Israel’s future.