A well-known cliché in Israeli political discourse refers to a high rate of support among the Jewish public for a two-state solution. As the claim goes, despite the Second Intifada and the rounds of fighting against Hamas in Gaza, most Jews still prefer this solution to the annexation of the Palestinian territories. Political scientists and journalists are thus consistently surprised as to why Israelis turn their backs on parties that espouse dividing the land and evacuating settlements, and choose to vote for those whose actions push a peace agreement further and further away.
In a conference held at Tel Aviv University, a well-known researcher announced, “The Israeli public is simply not rational.” Except that in decision-making, there’s a third option as well, which pollsters very rarely ask about: the option of maintaining the current situation. In the few cases in which this option is offered to respondents, it turns out that a growing number of Israelis prefer it to disengagement or annexation. Sometimes it even gets a majority.
This fact discomforts many commentators. Could it be that Israelis truly want occupation? That they truly vote for apartheid? But if you put the moral consideration aside, the status quo appears to be the preferred option for Jewish Israelis, at least in the short term. While the occupation exacts an economic price and international isolation, if you consider simple profit-and-loss analyses, it is better than the other options.
Annexation of the territories will significantly alter the demographic balance and the character of the country, while evacuating settlements and establishing a Palestinian state entails security risks (that the left tends to downplay) and disputes that could lead to civil war. It’s not that the Jewish public is happy with the present situation or particularly wants to rule over the Palestinians — it just prefers this situation to the alternatives.
There is no one who better recognixes this and adheres to the status quo than Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister learned the necessary lessons from losing power in his first term, and turned solving incidental problems and stagnation into art forms. Therein lies his attraction: Despite all of the talk of a vision and a path, the prime minister mainly offers Israelis a continuation of the current situation.
Slowly but surely, the understanding that this is the real desire of the Israeli voter is trickling down to the rest of the political establishment, and at present, the main disagreement between the prime minister and his critics from the center lies in the best way to strengthen the status quo. While Netanyahu and Shelly Yachimovich seek to ignore the Palestinian issue altogether, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid believe in negotiations to help take pressure off of Israel and thus, paradoxically, also help maintain the present situation. Regardless of the expected achievements of the candidates for the premiership, when it comes to the fundamental question of Israeli existence, the coming election has already been called.
They say that global climate change takes place at a pace slow enough for politicians to ignore it. The same can be said today for the occupation, and for the destructive processes it has brought upon the state of Israel. The deepening racism, rising corruption, militarism and loss of international legitimacy — all of these are happening slowly. At any given moment, the alternatives look worse and the desire for change lessens. Thus there is a growing sense that the state of Israel won’t be able to bring about the end of the occupation on its own, and will require serious pressure from outside in order to wean the public and the political establishment from its addiction to the status quo.