Just as we already know the broad outlines of today’s Israeli election, we also know pretty much what the international and American media will say about the results. They will tell us that the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parties that make up his current coalition represents a sharp step to the right for Israel. It will be portrayed as a rejection of peace and a blow to the chance of a two-state solution to the conflict. Sadly, it will almost certainly lead to editorials and op-eds calling for a reevaluation of the U.S.-Israel alliance and even for American Jews to question the ties between their community and the Jewish state. The narrative of a cruel Israel that is indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians will be endlessly rehearsed and the vote will be used to justify the isolation of Israel and to garner support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But while it is true that the likely outcome of the vote will show gains for Israel’s right-wing and nationalist parties, the reason for this, as well as the sentiments of the voters, will be misunderstood and falsely construed.
Netanyahu’s victory as well as the major gains that will be scored by the party to his right, led by Naftali Bennett, will not be largely the result of a philosophical shift to embrace right-wing ideology. It is not the charms of the notoriously unlikeable Netanyahu or even the undeniable attraction that Bennett has for many Israelis who like his modern outlook as well as his military and business record. The change in the Israeli electorate from an evenly divided electorate between left and right is due entirely to the experience of the last 20 years, during which Israel has tried to make peace with the Palestinians. It is the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace and embrace of terror and violence that has changed the minds of so many Israelis and convinced them that even though they want a two-state solution, there is no partner for peace with whom they can make such a deal. Rather than damn Israelis for turning their backs on peace, the rest of the world, and especially Americans who think of themselves as friends of Israel, should be asking themselves what it is that Israelis know about their neighborhood that they have preferred to ignore.
Bennett’s rise is the big story in this election, and there’s little doubt that his mix of traditional Zionist sentiment and hardheaded thinking about the Palestinians is generating a surge for his Jewish Home Party that puzzles liberal Americans. It is true that many in his party represent hard-core settlers and illiberal religious leaders who have little in common with Americans. But his appeal is also the product of a realization on the part of some more secular Israelis that his approach is a throwback to a more heroic era in Israeli thought. Though the tension between Netanyahu and Bennett, who once worked for the prime minister, is palpable, he is a mainstream figure whose future in his country’s politics is likely to eventually find him back in the Likud rather than leading a smaller party.
But while some insist that this is a “Seinfeld” election that is about nothing, that nothing is a context in which the country’s once-dominant left-wing parties and traditional left have been essentially marginalized or forced to drop peace as a major issue, as is the case with Labor. Where once there was a consensus that Israel needed to try to trade land for peace with the Palestinians, after Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza, and the rejection by both Yasir Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas of Israeli offers of statehood that included a share of Jerusalem, only a mindless ideologue can pretend that the lack of peace is due to Israel’s failure to make concessions. The fact that the Likud and its nationalist competitors have shifted even more to the right on peace is rooted in a widespread understanding that, as Bennett’s TV ads say, the Palestinians are no more likely to ever accept a two-state solution (no matter where Israel’s borders would be drawn) than for “The Sopranos” to make a comeback.
If many Americans not otherwise prejudiced against Jews and Israel nevertheless blame the Jewish state for the standoff in the Middle East, it is largely due to ignorance of the context of events in the Middle East and the history of the conflict. Rather than thinking, as President Obama reportedly does, that we understand Israel’s “best interests” better than the country’s voters, Americans should show a little humility. If Netanyahu and the right are winning, it is not because Israelis don’t want peace but because they have paid attention to the events of the last two decades and drawn the only possible conclusion.