The 2013 Israeli 19th Knesset elections are over. Many an important and thorny issue will have to be addressed by the upcoming government; but the conflict with the Palestinians will be its most problematic, in light of the unprecedented impasse reached in finding a settlement to the dispute.
The positions espoused by the electoral programs of the various competing Israeli parties were remarkably similar in dealing with the topical issues of the day.
This parallel came despite the various slogans that each of them espoused to differentiate themselves in the eyes of the voters; yet, the similarity in views concerning the Palestinian conflict was due to a number of reasons, both Israeli and Palestinian:
On the ground, the events that surprised the Israelis in the military confrontation in the Gaza Strip, with Hamas transformed into a real enemy which Israel now considers to be a credible threat to its political agenda in the region. This is a perception that narrowed the margin of differences between the competing Israeli political parties.
In the negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian belligerents started focusing on the more contentious issues needed to reach a permanent solution, especially those concerning a perpetual border and the building of settlements, at the expense of more “tactical” matters.
Also, the electoral winners’ positions all converged, whereby their proposed vision of purported solutions to the Palestinian problem were all similar; and here the aforementioned winners are the three major political parties: The Likud-Beitenu (Our Home), Yesh Atid (Future Party), and the Labor Party.
It is no secret that dealing with the Palestinian developments on the ground constituted the greatest common factor over which the competing, and later victorious, parties agreed. These parties’ electoral campaigns reflected this fact, especially in the case of the Likud Party, which belittled its losing rival Kadima, accusing it of being too lenient with Hamas.
If the political right proves successful in forming a coalition government that includes the Likud-Beitenu, Shas, and the Jewish Home Party, it will reject the idea of “taming” Hamas and pushing it towards moderation; as the Labor, Future, and Meretz parties would like to do.
One of Likud’s most prominent figures, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, current Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, clearly expressed this idea when he said: Hamas is part of the worldwide organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. Like all its Islamic movement counterparts, it might make tactical and temporary changes, but it will never abandon its core ideology. It is therefore not permissible for Israel to accept the presence of an armed Hamas state nearby, because such a state would be part of a tightly knit alliance that includes Israel’s enemies abroad, even if its leadership exhibited a certain degree of pragmatic flexibility on the road towards achieving its ultimate goal of destroying Israel.
The clearest expression of the Likud Party’s position was most probably articulated by its leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who won by a smaller than expected margin, when he said that Hamas’ rise represented a clear and imminent threat to the state of Israel. In Gaza, this threat took the form of an established “armed mini-state” under Hamas’ leadership; and on the West Bank, in the risk that the Palestinian Authority would collapse, to be replaced by another Hamas-led state that would adopt the Gaza model and threaten the security of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In contrast, the political right, which won 61 seats compared to the 59 seats won by the center and left, espouses a stance completely different than that of the Labor Party, which does not differentiate much between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, although it favors the former because it thinks that Israel’s terms for negotiations with any Palestinian leadership were clear: An end to violence, the disarmament of Palestinian factions, a commitment to previously signed pledges and agreements, recognizing Israel, and the exclusion of the clauses calling for Israel’s destruction from Hamas’ Charter.
Through its victorious leader Shelly Yachimovich’s campaign, the Labor Party expressed marked flexibility in the possibility of negotiating with Hamas, if the latter pledged to abide by the aforementioned conditions; with the party, which is expected to be part of any coalition government, stating that there wouldn’t be any reason left preventing Hamas from being a future negotiating partner.
The Likud-Beitenu Party, which won the largest number of seats in the Knesset, unequivocally thinks that Israel, in its latest confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, won a battle but lost the war in its ongoing dispute with the Palestinians. Prominent military and security figures, such as Moshe Ya'alon, Amram Mitzna, Yaakov Perry, Amir Peretz and others who took part in the elections as candidates representing a number of parties, confirmed this assertion through a comparison between the Israeli war against the Palestinians and the American war against al-Qaeda:
Tactically, Israel’s achievements in intelligence gathering, precision, and the reduction of collateral damage, surpassed those of the United States and Britain in Afghanistan, whereby Israel succeeded in accurately gathering intelligence about Hamas, and assassinated some of its political and military leaders; among them, Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the Qassam Brigades. The Americans failed to accomplish that against al-Qaeda, with the exception of Osama Bin Laden.
Strategically, al-Qaeda lost its bases in Afghanistan, as well as its capacity to recruit and train thousands of young men. The Taliban regime, which backed it politically, was completely annihilated. On the other hand, Hamas openly established training bases in the Gaza Strip, and rather overtly went about building rockets and developing weapons; its political position further strengthened as a result of its latest war, and apparent “victory” against Israel.
The future of negotiations
In as far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, the absence of the Kadima Party, which was the biggest loser in the surprising elections, could mean an abandonment of the idea to replicate in the West Bank, or parts thereof, the unilateral disengagement that occurred in the Gaza Strip; a stance echoed by the party’s most prominent candidate, Shaul Mofaz, who constantly repeated during the elections, that the future government’s most important task would be to establish secure and defensible borders that guarantee the security of its citizens.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s announcement lately that he planned to unilaterally withdraw beyond the West Bank’s borders, without an agreement being reached with the Palestinian Authority, and in order to impose certain facts on the ground that would define the boundary of a future Palestinian state, might not be a welcome proposition in any upcoming coalition government, especially if it were entirely composed of right-wing elements.
Such elements consider the West Bank part of Israel, and withdrawing might entrench the Palestinians’ belief that Israel is bowing to pressure brought about by Palestinian military might!
As negotiations have come to a grinding halt, the possibility of a third Intifada loomed large in the electoral platforms and campaigns of Israeli parties. They all tried to outdo the others by accusing previous successive governments of miserably failing to put an end to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, and blamed them for the horrendous decline in security measures taken against the militants.
Therefore, Israeli right wing leaders, who came out victorious in the elections, consider that confronting the armed factions, especially Hamas, is part of an intense, daily, sophisticated and advanced battle. In what former defense Minister Shaul Mofaz described as “a long marathon race, and not a short distance sprint.”
Israel has thus overcome the obstacles set up by its detractors and has become one of the leading countries in the global war against such factions, to the point where Netanyahu blessed the French operation in Mali, considering it an extension of his fight against Hamas on Palestinian lands!
This is where accusations mount against the successive governments of Olmert and Netanyahu for failing to adequately respond to the Palestinian resistance, especially the rockets fired at settlements close to Gaza, and blaming those governments for not building a separation wall in the West Bank similar to the one built around Gaza in 1994. Will such projects be the next government’s hallmark?
The Labor Party, on the other hand, which got a severe electoral wake-up call following years of waning popularity, chose to distance itself from the mutual accusations flung by politicians and military figures. Its stance is that military victory against the Palestinians cannot be gauged by the number of times that the [Israeli] army occupied Ramallah, Jenin, or Nablus, nor by the successful operations conducted by the Shabak (Israel Security Agency). In this regard its position is more closely aligned with that of the leftist Meretz party which recognizes the serious errors committed by Israel in the past few years; be they in its flawed conception of what the political goal should be, or its improper use of military force.
In parallel, large swaths of the Labor Party espouse the military doctrine that says: “He who aims to kill you, kill him first!” They want such a slogan to be the foundation for the army’s operations against Palestinian armed factions, and to revive the party founding fathers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres’, plans to quickly build a separation wall in the West Bank, open bridges and crossings with Jordan and Egypt, and refrain, as much as possible, from establishing checkpoints and observation posts between Palestinian communities.
In conclusion, Hamas’ continued control over the Gaza Strip, and its growing military, political and regional influence, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority’s continued financial and political decline, might push Israeli parties to change their stated stance towards the Authority if things remain as they are today, and contingent upon the nature of the coalition that is expected to take form in the coming weeks. All that remains, is for us to wait and see.
Adnan Abu Amer is Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and head of the Press and Information Section as well as a lecturer in the history of the Palestinian issue, national security, political science and Islamic civilization at Al Ummah University Open Education. He holds a doctorate in political history from the Demashq University. He has published a number of books on issues related to the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Follow him on twitter @adnanabuamer1