Israel’s Election Didn’t Kill Hope for Peace. It Was Already Dead.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu ran against Shimon Peres for prime minister of Israel, his campaign slogan was, “There is no peace, there is no security, there is no reason to vote for Peres.” The implication was, as Netanyahu would reiterate in campaigns that would follow, that only he could bring “peace with security.” In his victory speech that year, he promised “peace for everyone,” “security for everyone” and “prosperity for everyone.” Then, he said:

This evening I stretch out my hand in peace to all the Arab leaders and all of our neighbors, our Palestinian neighbors. I call on you to join us on the road to real peace with security. Let us go in a way of security for everyone, for all the nations of the region. The government we will form … will continue negotiations with the Palestinians, and we will also try to advance the negotiations with other Arab states.

Today, almost a quarter of a century later, with Netanyahu poised to pass Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest-serving head of state, two elements of his 1996 speech are striking. First, he has made good on most of those promises. Israelis do feel secure. The Israeli economy is chugging along admirably, and the standard of living has risen drastically. Relations with other Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are close, some more publicly than others.

The second point, however, is that Netanyahu has failed to deliver on peace with the Palestinians. In the quarter-century since Netanyahu was first elected, that relationship has not budged. Yet — and this is the point that many U.S. observers misunderstood when they wrung their hands over the election results last week — very few Israelis hold Netanyahu accountable for that failure.

In this year’s election, not a single party — not Blue and White, which emerged from nowhere to give Netanyahu a serious run for his money; not Ben-Gurion’s Labor Party, which was reduced to a meager six seats in its most dismal showing ever; and not even Meretz, Israel’s Jewish party that leans furthest to the left — included peace in their campaign slogans or promises. In Israel’s 2019 election, peace was simply not on the agenda.

Many Israelis still hope for peace, and many (though a steadily decreasing number) still favor a two-state solution. But few imagine that there is any chance for either in the coming years. U.S. President Donald Trump has long promised to deliver the “deal of the century,” but Israelis are largely of two minds on that: Many believe it will never see the light of day; most of the rest think that because the Palestinians have already declared the program “born dead,” it makes no difference what Israelis think of it.

There is no “deal” now or in the foreseeable future primarily because the Palestinians have still not made peace with the idea that a Jewish state is here to stay. When Hamas, which controls Gaza, started its “March of Return” last year, it promised that the march would mark the beginning of the “liberation of all of Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.” The march, in other words, was simply the latest chapter in Hamas’s drive to destroy the Jewish state. Thousands of Holocaust survivors are still alive in Israel, and Israelis regularly hear, “When an enemy of the Jewish people tells you he is going to kill you, believe him.” Israelis take Hamas seriously.

Similarly, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned U.S. President Donald Trump that any peace plan that does not establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 border would be unacceptable, Israelis took him seriously, too. Those borders, they know, are essentially indefensible; what Abbas is thus seeking is not a state, they believe, but the gradual destruction of Israel.

Israelis’ read of Abbas may be right or wrong, but it prevails. Couple that to the fact that today’s young Israelis, like today’s young Palestinians, have come of age long after Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and the Oslo accords blew up in a wave of Palestinian terrorism, and it suddenly becomes less mysterious that Israeli millennials are more right-leaning than their parents.

To American ears, especially to American Jewish ears, Netanyahu’s re-election sounds like the death knell of peace; to Israeli ears, peace has long been dead.

What Israelis had to decide was whether they wanted the security and prosperity that Netanyahu has delivered at the cost of corruption indictments and Trump-like attacks on democratic institutions, or whether they preferred a Mr. Clean who would end the corruption, but whose ability to maintain the security and prosperity was entirely untested. They voted for the “devil they know.”

Whatever Israel’s election means, Israelis did not vote against peace: No party was committing to it. Nor did the election reflect a weakening of Israeli democracy. Benny Gantz, a political unknown a few months ago, came very close to beating Netanyahu. And no one worried that if Netanyahu lost he would not step aside.

If this year’s campaign is cause for concern, it’s because of another topic that — like peace — went unmentioned. In 1996, another of Netanyahu’s slogans was that he was “good for the Jews.” In an era when territorial concessions seemed likely, that phrase meant one thing. Today, with Netanyahu’s anti-Israeli-Arab rhetoric now undeniable, it evokes entirely different fears. What Israel needs is a conversation about what the Jewishness of the Jewish state means, and how it will be expressed.

Sadly, the only parties running with a clear Jewish vision for the Jewish state were those on the very-far, undeniably racist, right. To them, a Jewish state should have no Arabs. A Jewish state should not compromise territorially. Sovereign Jews should stop caring what the rest of the world thinks of them or their policies. Jews should annex the land that God gave promised them.

To most Israelis, such attitudes are anathema. Yet the majority of Israel’s parties said nothing significant about how Israel should manifest its Jewish commitments. Few in Israel believe that a Jewish demographic majority is a sufficient measure of Jewishness, but what ought to be the measure of Israel’s Jewishness is seldom raised.

In the days prior to the election, I attended a small parlor meeting with Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, one of Blue and White’s leaders. Asked what Israel’s being Jewish ought to mean, Ya’alon — not only a general and a former army chief of staff, but also an author, highly regarded for his intellect and breadth of knowledge — responded that Israel ought to be “just and moral.” No Western leader of a largely Christian country would have said anything different. Most of those in the room had come because they were inclined to vote Blue and White and wanted to learn more; I suspect that most did end up voting for the party. But there was no denying that many left the evening disappointed with the vapidness of the party’s vision for their state.

That peace is nowhere in the offing is of course tragic, but it is both also a danger and an opportunity. It is a danger because with the Palestinians likely to remain Israel’s enemies for as far as the eye can see, the potential for even deeper anti-Arab sentiment to become rooted in Israel’s youth is even greater.

The death of peace is an opportunity, however. Now that Israelis have no territorial or security concessions over which to argue, they could finally turn their attention to discussing what about their country, beyond demography, could be meaningfully Jewish. What was perhaps most tragic about Israel’s election was that neither the victor nor any of his challengers seemed interesting in engendering that conversation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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