“BACK TO THE FUTURE? REVISITING ISRAEL’S 2009 ELECTIONS” By Miriam Fendius Elman
In the Middle East, history has a way of repeating itself. Indeed, Israeli politics in 2009 could easily be mistaken for 1996. Then, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, also eked out a narrow victory against a left-of-center candidate, Shimon Peres, largely by pressing security concerns. In 1996, the cumulative effect of three months of suicide bombing was enough to undermine public confidence in Peres’s left-of-center government and its peace strategy. Similarly, given the inconclusive outcome of the recent military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, it was inevitable that the Israeli right—dominated for years by the Likud party—would do well at the polls. The 2009 elections also mirrored those of a decade ago because on both occasions Netanyahu’s electoral fortunes were linked to the Palestinian Israeli vote. In 1996, Ne- tanyahu won the election by the slimmest of margins—less than one half of 1%—largely because most of these Palestinian citizens boycotted the elections. This time, Netanyahu and his Likud party had a stronger mandate, but the Palestinian Israeli vote was still decisive, as media depictions of Palestinians from Umm Al Fahm and Nazareth draping themselves with Palestinian flags and chanting support for Hamas contributed to both Netanyahu’s electoral victory and to the meteoric rise of Avigdor Lieberman’s party—Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home)—which garnered a whopping fifteen legislative seats.
In the days before Israelis went to the polls, the general consensus among political pundits was that a Likud-led governing coalition would be a disaster for the peace process, and a step back for Israeli-Palestin- ian relations. The received wisdom is that Netanyahu’s deliberate delays in implementing Israeli withdrawals coupled with his heavy-handed response to terror contributed to Oslo’s demise. The reality, though, is that Netanyahu’s record on the peace process as prime minister in the 1990s was mixed. In fact, Netanyahu signed both the Hebron and Wye Plantation accords, making additional territorial concessions to the Pales- tinian Authority. Holding the liberal view that economic prosperity fosters peace, the Netanyahu-led ruling coalition is committed to strengthening the noticeable economic rejuvenation that has been taking place recently in the West Bank. And Netanyahu has said that he will continue to support U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton’s plans to train further Palestinian security forces—enabling the Palestinians to step up, so that the IDF can step down.
Most Israelis now realize that the occupation, long justified on security grounds, has become a net security liability. These Israelis want a state that will support Zionism and Israel’s Jewish identity, and they accept that relinquishing Jewish settlement in the occupied territories is the only way to achieve this outcome. Indeed, despite claims that the 2009 election results reflect the Israeli public’s marked shift to the right, these elections have not overturned this new consensus.
The elections highlight a growing rift within Israel—between those who insist that Israel should be a democratic, liberal state with equal opportunities and obligations for all citizens, and those who believe that Israeli national self-determination should foster Jewish hegemony in a Jewish nation-state. Yet, the view of Israel as a state for the exclusive benefit of Jews does not necessarily preclude accommodation with the Palestinians. In fact, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli politician most associated with Israel’s turn to the right, supports the two-state solution in principle, including territorial withdrawal from Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and much of the West Bank. In sum, the 2009 elections demonstrate that Israelis are becoming more willing to impose a Jewish ethnocultural hegemony in the country, even as they have finally come to accept a Palestinian right to self-determination and the need for Israel to withdraw from most of the occupied territories.
Miriam Fendius Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Maxwell School and a Faculty Research Associate in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC). This essay is based on Elman’s presentation at a panel on The Elections in Israel: Implications for the Jewish State and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict which took place on February 13, 2009 at the Maxwell School. A longer version of the essay can be found at http://middle-eastern-studies.syr.edu/Dime.htm.