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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: What Israel’s electoral upset means

Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and is managing partner at The Research Department, a consultancy.

It was supposed to have been Naftali Bennett’s day. Mr Bennett’s pride in his country and prejudice against the Arabs, we were told by his friends as much as his enemies, represented the “new Israel,” confident in its strength, secure in its Jewishness and in love with its high tech sector.

This suited the Israeli right, who seemed the coming men. It suited the Israeli left, whose pessimism about their own country went a long way to explaining their dwindling share of the vote. And it suited the foreign policy elite, for whom Israel disrupts an orderly Middle East that exists only in their imagination.

This right-wing Israel did not, according to President Obama, know its own best interests. William Hague, on election day, warned that time for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian deal was running out. Perhaps a year would be all that was left . The first time I heard a foreign office official muse on the possiblity of a “one-state solution” I was shocked; but it gets floated more and more often now. It’s not, I can only presume, used as a serious proposal – the new state would be plunged into civil war and we’d be back where we started, just with more Israelis and Palestinians dead – it is, rather, a threat.

Had Naftali Bennett indeed been an avatar of the new Israel and had the extreme right in fact been the rise, threats of isolation might well have begun to command broad international support. This idea of Israel, uninterested in peaceful coexistence, may well hold sway in chancelleries and academia, trade unions and the more left-wing media, but Tuesday’s election showed us that Israelis lived in a different country. They voted as often on social issues, on whether they tilted towards a secular or more religious society, and on economic policy as on the “National Question”. Pragmatic centrists, who desire peace as much as they think it unlikely, surged. The small, left-wing peacenik Meretz party won 6 of the 120 seats. Mr Bennet’s hawks, 13. Labor, which ran on social democracy and eschewed Israel’s national question, 15. The surprise was a new party, led by broadcaster Yair Lapid, that won 19. All in all, pragmatic centrist parties gained 48 seats. Netanyahu’s Likud’s alliance with the Russian immigrant Yisrael Beitenu party fell to 31.

The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu, who still leads the largest Knesset faction, would summon up the full power of his deal-making magic to remain Prime Minister, and he has made it clear he would prefer a centre-right alliance with Lapid. A far right coalition scraping together a bare majority by appeasing the ultra orthodox parties’ unpopular demands for welfare spending and continued exemption from military service would doom him to instability and eventual defeat.

The new government owes its shape to the chastened moderation of Israel’s centre. Chastened by the Second Palestinian Intifada, a campaign of ferocious suicide bombs detonated in cafes, bars and buses. Reinforced by the consequences of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon, with rockets fired on Israeli cities from the land their troops had evacuated. Centrists see no evidence that giving up land will secure peace. If they understand that more Israeli settlements make a peace deal harder, their experience also teaches that unilateral gestures of goodwill are unlikely to bear fruit, and that however willing Mahmoud Abbas may be to negotiate peace, he lacks the capacity to make any deal stick. As for Hamas, while they might have the capacity, they certainly lack the will.

We hear less, thanks to the Arab Spring, of the utter nonsense that resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the key to transforming the region, but peace is still important for its own sake. Persuading the Israeli centre of its practicality, rather than alarmism about time running out, is what matters.


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