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A shift to Israel’s center? Think again

All that can be said with certainty now about the Israeli election results is that the deck of political cards in the Knesset has been dramatically reshuffled: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition with Avigdor Lieberman won 31 seats (much less than expected, and down from the 41 seats it held before) and remains the single largest group; the extreme right Bayit Yehudi party of Naftali Bennett took 11 seats; and Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party made the biggest splash with its 19 seats (more than the predicted 12 seats), making it the second biggest party in parliament.

Any analysis of the election results must differentiate between domestic policy and relations with the Palestinians and Arabs, which is the first real problem I have with the trends in Israeli public opinion that may be mirrored in the election results. That is because Israelis, for many reasons, have effectively obliterated the Palestine issue and Zionist settler-colonialism in occupied Arab territories as relevant political issues to address. For years now, Israelis have not seen or felt the impact of their occupation and colonization policies, due to a variety of reasons that include concrete walls they built on the ground and walls of racism and Apartheid created in their minds.

So political platforms, voter decisions, election outcomes and possible coalitions for a new government can mean very different things when measured against domestic policies or Israeli-Palestinian-Arab relations. This is one major reason why I tend to concur with Israeli and Palestinian analysts who remain skeptical about this election signaling a major shift toward the center, and away from right-wing, colonization-based and annexation-based Zionist extremism and serial criminality (by “criminality” I mean Israel’s repeatedly ignoring and breaking international law by building settlements in occupied Palestinian lands – for what is a law-breaker if not a criminal?).

It is clear that many of the undecided voters ultimately backed Lapid, but Israeli pollster Mitsna Zemah noted that about 50 percent of Lapid’s supporters came from the right. We may be witnessing an Israeli version of what the American political system experienced decades ago through Washington state Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. He was a hawk on international issues and confronting the Soviet Union, but a liberal on domestic social issues.

I am skeptical of a “centrist” shift in Israel on foreign policy mainly because I see no evidence that a majority of Israeli citizens has repudiated or even softened its position on the five critical issues that define Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arabism-Zionism interactions: Israel’s positions on settlements and continued colonization, sharing Jerusalem, withdrawing from all lands occupied in 1967 (with swaps to be agreed), negotiating a mutually agreed and law-based resolution of the Palestine refugee issue (along with any claims by Jewish refugees, also to be based on the same laws and principles) and giving full rights to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

On these critical issues related to Israeli-Arab relations, the election results indicate nothing of certitude beyond what is known about the previous positions of parties that shared power or the stated rhetorical positions of parties that are new to power but have no track record to judge them by. Four issues now need to be clarified before we can have a clearer idea of what the election results portend for Israeli-Palestinian-Arab ties: Do voters who left the Netanyahu-Likud camp for more extreme right-wing parties signal an ideological hardening of the right or just a minor shuffle of seats? Do voters who supported Lapid’s new party represent a shift away from the hard right in favor of a more moderate centrist position? If so, does this movement to Lapid, and the few extra seats won by center-left parties, represent mainly a desire to promote greater social justice within Israel, or more flexible negotiating positions with the Palestinians, or both? Does the obvious desire among many Israelis to pay attention to social justice issues at home extend to Palestinian-Israelis as well as Jewish-Zionist-Israelis, or is this a new twist to Israel’s structured differentiation among Jewish Israelis with full citizenship rights and Palestinian Israelis with limited rights?

Michael J. Koplow summed it up nicely in Foreign Affairs magazine this week: “In short, neither the rise of Yesh Atid nor Likud’s decline means that the Israeli center won. Rather, they show that the hard-line right opted to move even further right, and the non-ideological right opted to back a softer version of the agenda it already supported.”

The coming phase of coalition negotiations should clarify many of these important issues. Until then, we should assume that little if anything has changed in how most Israelis view the Palestinians and their rights, or the applicability of international law to Israel’s criminal and colonial behavior beyond its borders.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 26, 2013, on page 7.

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