Israeli Elections in 2019: Changes Without Change

The problem of settling “the conflict” or, as they prefer to call it in Israel, “the diplomatic problem” did not come up much in the 2019 election campaign. This is not surprising. In the past 20 years the opportunity to find peace or some agreement with the Palestinians has receded further toward the horizon. Israeli society is convinced that any concession given to the Palestinians – whether it’s the Oslo agreements1 or the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip (2005) − has only made them more demanding and aggressive and increased the threat to public security.

The government propaganda machine was used actively to persuade voters that Israel had no negotiating partner by exploiting the complicated political and territorial split in Palestine. The so-called territorial maximalists – the right religious nationalists – intensively promoted the ideas of indivisibility and holiness of the Land of Israel for the Jews2. The Israeli left-wing camp – those who favor territorial compromises and putting an end to depriving Palestinians of land through expanded construction of settlements – are now being stigmatized as traitors. As a result, the majority of people are prepared to accept the current status regardless of how it affects Israel’s international image and what price it will have to pay in the future. Many Israelis consider dividing the country into two states unrealistic.

These nation-wide attitudes led to almost identical views on the Palestinian problem between the two main rivals in the 2019 election – Likud and the Blue and White. Basically, both platforms provided for further deepening the separation from the Palestinians with the unconditional preservation of the freedom of action for the Israeli army on the entire territory beyond “the green line,” the consolidation of settlement blocs and Jerusalem’s immutable status as Israel’s unified and indivisible capital. Both parties favor any opportunity to convene a regional conference for resolving the Palestinian problem.

The Regional and International Implications of Israel's Elections
“Bibi” Netanyahu will most probably head the next Israeli government. In an election that some expected to end with the public passing judgment on Netanyahu, the centre-left bloc parties were ultimately unable to obtain the 61 seats they would have needed in the next Knesset to prevent him from forming a coalition. The negotiations, however, that he will have to conduct with his potential partners will be tough.
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© 2019 Ariel Schalit/AP

The government that Benjamin Netanyahu will form as a result of the elections will include the parties that either reject any compromise with the Palestinians or have other priorities on their political agenda. The Union of Right-Wing Parties, that received five seats, now represents religious Zionists that are ideologically deeply rooted in the settlement movement and that have the most adamant stand on settlement issues. Avigdor Lieberman’s Our Home Israel party (five seats) is now focusing on promoting anti-cleric initiatives aimed at weakening the dictate of the religious right in various areas of public life, although this is the only right-wing party that favors creating a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank. The Kulanu party (four seats), led by current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, is more concerned about domestic socioeconomic issues. United Torah Judaism, an association of the Yahadut HaTorah Ashkenazi Orthodox religious parties (seven seats) and the Sephardi Orthodox Party (eight seats) have historically formed coalitions with both left and right parties depending on the financial prospects for their communities and religious schools.

Waiting for the publication of the so-called deal of the century – the US settlement plan that the Trump team has been working on since its first day in office – will give the government a weighty excuse for a lack of action on the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian National Authority has already called this plan unacceptable based on leaks that show that it ignores the interests of the Palestinian people.   

Progress in the political process with the Palestinians is also unlikely because of the shaky position of the prime minister himself. Netanyahu is being threatened with accusations of corruption and abuse of trust, which may force him to step down.

Election in Israel and Russia’s Interests
If Netanyahu is returned as Prime Minister then one of America’s closest allies will be heavily indebted to Moscow. It is conceivable that could be of help directly on the U.S.-Russia track, but it will almost certainly be of potential value as the next phase of Syria and a possible endgame in Syria comes into sight, with America largely withdrawing and with Israel in a position to spoil or facilitate the kind of settlement that could be in Russia’s interest.
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© Sputnik/Grigory Sysoyev

  

During his election campaign, Netanyahu skillfully used good relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s personal friendly attitude toward Israel. The return of the remains of an Israeli soldier killed 37 years ago during the first Lebanese war with the direct assistance of the Russian military became a weighty contribution to his election campaign. Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow in connection with this event and his meeting with President Putin several days before the election were classified as a reconciliatory gesture on behalf of Russia after its sensitive reaction to the downing of its reconnaissance plane over Syria in September 2018. Russia accused Israel of the pilot’s death. The Russian President’s promise to visit Israel in connection with the unveiling of a monument in memory of the victims of the Siege of Leningrad apparently showed that both countries were interested in continuing relations with mutual understanding and cooperation.

It appears that the current state of relations with Russia will remain stable, given the role Moscow assumed in the Syrian settlement, for any Israeli government, whether it’s Netanyahu or not. The more effective Moscow is in impeding the influence of Iran and its satellites in Syria, the more Russia can count on Israel’s support on the issues that affect the interests of our state in the international arena. This also applies to the efforts that Netanyahu could make to alleviate the sanctions against Russia owing to his close relations with the current US President.

However, we should not exaggerate the potential of Israel’s ability to lobby the US. After emigration restrictions for Soviet Jews were lifted in the late 1980s and diplomatic relations with Israel were restored in 1991, Moscow largely placed its bets on the ability of the pro-Israeli lobby to help get the Jackson-Vanik amendment suspended3, an act that prevented the development of trade between the two countries. Although Israel and American Jewish organizations took steps towards this goal, the notorious amendment was only repealed in November 2012. The American mechanism for decision-making is complicated and multi-stage. It is affected by various interests and thus the pro-Israeli lobby is far from always capable of overcoming resistance to its intentions.


1 A number of agreements reached as a result of the direct Palestine-Israeli talks in the 1990s, which led, in part, to the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority.

2 The biblical name of the territory that includes the whole of historical Palestine and part of territory of neighboring Arab states.

3 The adoption of the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974 was largely inspired by restrictions placed on the emigration of Jews by the Soviet authorities.



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