Israel goes to the polls on Feb. 10 in a collective state of mind that is highly disturbed and seemingly ill-prepared for the important choices which lie ahead. This is bad news for Israel itself, for its neighbors, and for the prospects for peace.
The Israeli electorate will be struggling to find answers to at least three important questions:
1) How will the fall-out from the war in Gaza affect Israel?
2) What will Barack Obama’s administration mean for U.S.- Israeli relations?
3) And which of the three or four Israeli politicians competing for the post of prime minister — a mediocre lot by any standards — can best be entrusted with Israel’s future?
Although much of the world viewed the war in Gaza as a criminal enterprise against helpless civilians, in Israel it produced an alarming surge of flag-waving nationalist triumphalism. Indifferent as ever to Palestinian suffering, the Israelis rejoiced at their army’s ability to wreak havoc on an Arab society. Many wanted the ferocious onslaught to continue until Hamas was obliterated and Gaza itself was “wiped off the map.”
As well as the deplorable mix of arrogance and paranoia, characteristic of Israel’s relations with its neighbors, the war revealed a deep current of Arab-hating racism at all levels of society, even in what had previously been thought of as the literary and political left. Expressed in political terms, the Israeli electorate has turned decisively to the Right.
Once the nationalist fervor subsides, however, Israelis are likely to face a painful awakening: The outcome of the war will probably be the very opposite of what Barak, Livni and Ehud Olmert — the discredited outgoing Prime Minister — had intended.
Israelis will be obliged to see that, far from destroying Hamas, the war has strengthened it and given it legitimacy. All Israel’s diplomatic agitation is unlikely to prevent some sort of contact between the European Union and Hamas — already in the cards, led by France — followed eventually by a U.S.-Hamas dialogue, as former Secretary of State James Baker and other influential Americans now recommend.
Far from continuing its blockade on Gaza, Israel will face great pressure to open the crossing points. Far from forcing a defeated Hamas to free Corporal Gilad Shalit, Israel will no doubt have to agree to exchange him for at least one thousand Palestinian prisoners — if, that is, it decides at long last to pay the price of freeing him, rather than letting him rot.
In brief, far from putting peace on the back-burner — as Israel’s ultra-nationalists and land-grabbing settlers had hoped — the war has stimulated unprecedented international efforts to arrive at a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, involving a necessary Israeli withdrawal from the remaining territories captured in 1967.
Even more painful for Israel’s warmongers will be the striking change of attitude in the White House. Israelis will have to come to terms with a U.S. president anxious to restore relations with the Arab and Muslim world — relations which were severely damaged by George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, his blind support for Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and his indiscriminate “Global War on Terror,” which was widely seen as a war on Islam.
This week Obama gave an interview to the Dubai-based satellite network al-Arabiya. “Now my job,” he declared, “is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” Never has an American president used such language.
More specifically, Obama said: “I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state… that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life…” Never has an American president delivered such an indictment of current Israeli policies and practices.
Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, former senator George Mitchell, is already in the region preaching a message of peace, reconciliation and territorial compromise. He has, to some extent, pre-empted the results of the February elections. Israel’s leaders — whoever they may be after the elections — will have to respond to a fundamentally changed political environment.
Israel’s politics are chaotic and deeply fragmented. This is a result of an electoral system based on an extreme form of nation-wide proportional representation, inherited from the pre-independence yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine under the British Mandate) when a profusion of groups all wished to make their voices heard. The system ordains that the number of seats which each list receives is proportional to the number of votes it wins at elections. Any list winning as little as 2 per cent of the vote is entitled to a seat in the Knesset. This results in a large number of tiny parties, each representing special interest groups, often of extreme views.
The result is that, unlike the situation in Western democracies — such as Britain or France, or indeed the United States — no single Israeli party is able to govern alone. To be able to govern, any one of the three or four major parties — whether Likud, Kadima, Labor or indeed Israel Beiteinu — must do deals with others. It must look for coalition partners among its rivals and/or among the smaller parties — such as Shas, the National Religious Party, United Torah Judaism and Meretz, not to mention the hard-pressed Arab parties, which narrowly missed being banned by racist pressure from the election altogether.
It is easy to see how such rickety coalitions can greatly restrict the freedom of action of any Israeli government, especially when it comes to negotiating peace.
This is the tricky situation with which George Mitchell will have to deal. Bringing Israel, kicking and screaming, to the negotiating table — and actually achieving a settlement — will take a great deal of skill, determination and pressure, especially if the next Israeli government is headed by Binjamin Netanyahu.
All that one can say is that, unlike any of his predecessors, President Barack Obama is determined, from the very beginning of his mandate, to press ahead in the search for Arab-Israeli peace. He enjoys unrivaled personal authority and political support at home. So dependent is Israel on American backing – whether financial, military or political — that it would be exceedingly rash for an Israeli government to confront him or earn his displeasure.
This is the best — indeed perhaps the only — favorable augury for the future of a deeply troubled region.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of “The Struggle for Syria”; also, “Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East”; and “Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.”