All right, I’ll say it: My predictions about the Israeli elections were completely wrong. Benjamin Netanyahu may have been slapped on one cheek for being too moderate (with the Jewish Home Party capturing 12 seats) but he was punched on the other cheek, when the Yesh Atid movement picking up 19. Basically, this means that Netanyahu will probably have to forge some sort of coalition with the center-left, with the far-right getting a certificate for attendance in the next Knesset.
The Economist suggested that Israeli voters might have finally started listening to the UN and President Obama, but I find Walter Russell Mead’s analysis slightly more believable: Outsiders view Israel globally, but Israelis vote locally. They weren’t so concerned with what the UN was saying as they were with employment, housing prices, or the draft — all issues which Yesh Atid addressed in its platform.
Generally, I am glad that Yesh Atid — led by the Israeli journalist and TV personality Yair Lapid — did so well in the elections. Even though a permanent settlement with the Palestinians is unlikely, it is good that hope for one should remain alive. If Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party been more successful, the coalition might have embraced his view that the most Israel can hope to do is stabilize the status quo. That would have raised all kinds of problematic questions. How could Israel be called a democracy while keeping a hold on the Palestinian populations of the West Bank’s Area A and B and denying these Palestinians a vote in the Israeli elections? That would have been awkward.
But I am still skeptical that Lapid will make a significant difference for the peace process. The Western media has been praising him for his willingness to talk to the Palestinians as well as his catchy party slogans. (I must admit, “Yesh Atid” which means, “There Is a Future,” is pretty darn catchy.) But a permanent two state solution for Israel and Palestine is kind of like the Loch Ness monster: If it existed, it probably would have been discovered by now.
This is suggested by the most stunning defeat of the election cycle: The total collapse of the center-left Kadima. This may be partly due to the fact that one of Kadima’s most visible members, Tzipi Livni, split with the party to form HaTnuah, another center-left party, but collectively these two parties won eight seats, far less than Kadima controlled in the last Knesset. This is mostly attributable to its failure to set an agenda once it fell out of power. As Schmuel Rosner has pointed out, Israel’s centrist parties (such as Dash, Shinui and The Center) have a long history of collapse. As soon as they are excluded from the government, their members begin fighting over the party platform and begin defecting.
But Israel’s centrist parties also fail because when they try to talk to Palestine, they often find that they have nothing to say. The real problem isn’t that Israel is intransient. It is that the Palestinians have no incentive to sign a permanent deal so long as they still foster hope that they can get a better one. And, since Palestinians are losing faith in the idea of a two-state solution, they will always foster hope for “a better deal” while Israel continues to exist. This isn’t new. Israel was willing to accept the 1947 UN Partition Plan, but Palestine acquiesced 41 years too late.
Israel shouldn't throw in the towel on a two-state solution just yet, but neither do I think that a TV celebrity will succeed where the party of Ariel Sharon failed.