A conspicuous absence in the Israeli elections?

Article published on March 20, 2015
Article published on March 20, 2015

While still a major geopolitical issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained at the margins of many voters' concerns during the electoral campaign.

But it was won by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party after he pandered to the right-wing vote using Palestine.

On Tuesday 17 March, Israeli citizens went to the polls to vote on a new parliament. The Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, desperately seeking re-election, was intent on halting the decline of his Likud Party's fall, by adopting a highly aggressive tone, especially in terms of foreign affairs. Netanyahu's speech given at the Congress of the United States was the clearest example of this. 

According to surveys just before the election, Netanyahu looked like he could have been re-elected thanks to a new coalition with the smaller conservate and religious parties, even if Likud were to have received fewer votes than the Zionist Union, the alliance between the Labour Party and centrist Hatnuah. The Zionist Union, which was in the lead according to surveys, had based its electoral campaign on the discontent created by the government's economic policies: harsh criticism of Netanyahu's hyper-liberalism and its inability to provide satisfactory solutions on critical issues like the increasing cost of living, education and welfare, have focused debate almost totally on the socio-economic sphere.

As we now know, Likud did win, and is now forming a right-wing coalition, after a fear-mongering and racially divisive intervention from Netanyahu:

Conspicuously absent: Palestine

What is notable, albeit on first glance, and possibly surprising, was the deafening silence on one thorny question: not a single Israeli party - except Likud - had centred its campaign on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even Netanyahu, who had made the country's security one of the key points of his electoral campaign, had only marginally touched on the topic (ed. until he unequivocally ruled out a Palestinian state to appeal to the right-wing vote).

In fact, the Prime Minister preferred to totally focus on the Iran threat (certainly nothing new; one only needs to recall the famous speech on the UN's red line) rather than concentrate his attention on the Occupied Territories. Yet Netanyahu, who has sought every possible way to win votes from the centre-right with an extremely provocative stance on foreign affairs, has certainly not overtly hidden his party's support for building new settlements in what should one day be the Palestinian State.

Is it that the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a focal point throughout the Middle East? Is it that with the  emergence of new problems – such as ISIS - it's been moved to the back burner?

A possible explanation

This could be a logical and legitimate explanation, but it may be too cursory a way to answer a question that has characterised (and led to much bloodshed) over the last sixty years in the Middle East: the analyses, like everything about Israel, are complex and multifaceted, but here, we try to briefly understand the reasons for this omission.

In the first place, last summer's war in Gaza has notably altered Israeli public opinion. Especially among the young, the idea that it was a useless war and that the solution should be found through other means seems to have become a majority opinion. And Netanyahu especially has no interest in highlighting what, while militarily certainly was not a success, was a defeat in the media.

Another important aspect to help explain this absence is the fact that on the Palestinian front, the Israeli government is in fact at a dead end. After retreating from Gaza more than ten years ago, there are few hanging issues and the conflict seems to have become a cold one.

One exception, though significant, can be found in the issue of West Bank settlements. Netanyahu and his party are likely to continue to support the colonists and their provocations, in spite of any peace accord. If neither of the major blocs gains an absolute majority – not an unrealistic hypothesis – any kind of agreement would be impossible on the Palestinian issue. Things would remain almost the same until new elections.

But in general, the Israeli parties do not seem particularly sensitive to the matter, in fact, proposing very similar alternatives. Dismantling existing settlements is out of the question – with the obvious exceptions, among the major parties, of United Arab List and Meretz, a second tier leftist party – and halting the construction of new settlements could be a tricky argument as well. If in fact the Zionist Union at the start of its electoral campaign had quietly stressed the necessity to halt the colonies, along the way they had to desist, as surveys have shown that the subject appears not to have found a consensus among the electorate.

Israel's principal interest right now, considering the region's endemic instability, is to cool off the conflict. thereby minimising the risks for the new government, since it won't be linked to promises made during the electoral campaign. In light of these considerations, it isn't that surprising that the Palestinian issue was relegated to the back burner during most of the electoral campaign.

But when Netanyahu brought it to the forefront, it helped him win the election.