Netanyahu's Victory Interpreted

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections just 21 months into his four-year term, he said he wanted "a clear mandate to lead Israel" and a more cohesive coalition with which to govern.

The Palestinians anticipated the emergence of a "more right wing and extreme" government. Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, now patron of Labor Friends of Palestine, charged that "Israel has gone from secular to religious" and that "centrists are sickened by religious fanatics."

This was to be an election to settle the direction of Israeli politics and society. Were Israelis really veering to the right? Had religious zealotry triumphed over secular social democratic ideals? Were the centrists truly being crushed under the weight of the ineptitude of the left and the jingoism of the right? Or were the Palestinians and their powerful backers among Western elites seeking to characterise Israel as a right wing pariah simply because it suited them to do so?

How Israelis voted

Israel's electoral system is based on nation-wide proportional representation. The number of seats a party wins in the 120-member Parliament (Knesset), is directly proportional to the number of votes it receives. A party receiving half of the national vote gets half the seats in the Parliament.

Binyamin Netanyahu's centre-right Likud - the hawkish, small-government, ideological counterpart of the U.S. Republicans and the Australian Liberal Party - received just under 23.4% of the national vote. This is almost an identical amount to the 23.34% of the vote it received in Israel's 2013 election.

Despite Netanyahu's last-minute pitch to right-wing voters in the form of a pledge that no Palestinian State would be established on his watch - a statement that has widely been criticised in Israel and internationally - the Likudvote barely shifted. So much for the rightward surge.

If this was a "referendum on Netanyahu," as many analysts claimed, then Israelis decisively showed their preference for a different leader. Over 75% of the Israeli voting public chose a rival party with a rival leader. The trouble was Israelis were so evenly divided among the alternatives that Netanyahu survived with his meagre two out of every nine votes.

The real phenomena to emerge from the 2015 election were the decline of hard-right and religious parties, the consolidation of the centrist lists, the rise of a unified Arab list and the re-emergence of a strong, electable social democratic centre-left party in the form of the Zionist Union.

This last party, the Zionist Union, was an amalgam of Israeli Labor and Hatnuah. Labor was once the very nucleus of the Zionist movement that cultivated a Jewish homeland based on secular, democratic ideals, while Hatnuah is the micro-party of the dovish former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni.

The Zionist Union took 24 seats in the new Parliament, narrowly missing out on government after leading in the polls right up to election day. The big story from this election is that centre-left politics in Israel is back and its totemic Labor Party is once again a force.

In fact, the right wing of Israeli politics has emerged from the election severely bruised. The four parties to the right of Netanyahu's Likud - being the religious-Zionist Jewish Home, the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu(Israel Our Home) and the two orthodox religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism - each lost seats in the Parliament. Taken together, the right wing lost 14 of its 41 seats. A new religious party, Yachad, an offshoot ofShas, failed to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold required to win a single seat in the new Parliament.

The two centrist parties - Yesh Atid and the new party, Kulanu - more than held their own and together claimed 21 seats in the new Parliament. The continued success of small, centrist parties with charismatic leaders underscores the electorate's fatigue with Netanyahu, coupled with its uncertainty about the leader of the Labor Party, the sensible but rather low-key Isaac "Bouji" Herzog.

Bob Carr's prognostications and the reflexive "Israel lurches to the right" analysis of certain commentators have thus been disproven by the actual results. As Professor Brent Sasley demonstrated, if there was any "right turn" at all in the Israeli electorate, it was from the centre-left to the centre.

Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from the election was the party polling third, the Joint List, an amalgam of four Arab-dominated parties. The unification of the Arab parties was prompted by the introduction of an electoral threshold to limit the power of micro-parties in the Parliament by ensuring that those polling under 3.25% of the national vote are not allotted a seat and therefore cannot hold the balance of power despite having little popular support.

The new unified Arab list - a melange of Arab nationalists, communists and even Islamists, all of which compete freely for votes in Israel (but not in many Arab countries) - attracted a significant increase in Israeli Arab voter turnout, up 7.5% from 2013. As a result, the Arab parties have 13 seats in the Knesset, and are now the third largest group in the Israeli Parliament.

Israel's Arab citizens constitute 20% of its total population. Yet a majority of Arab voters did not vote for the Arab parties. All up, 22.8% of Arab voters backed the Zionist Union, while 15.3% voted for Netanyahu and 13.7% supported the right-wing nationalist party of Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Yisrael Beitenu.

What Israelis want

Pre-election polling revealed that 53% of Israelis believe that social issues and cost of living are top priority at the ballot box, while 24% view security as paramount.

In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis rallied against the rising cost of living in Israel, sparked by the famed"cottage-cheese boycott" called by Israeli consumers angered by the rising prices of basic staples. These pressures largely explain the new power of the centrist parties who campaigned on social and economic management platforms.

The success of the newly formed party, Kulanu, was attributed to the party's founder, Moshe Kahlon, having successfully deregulated the mobile phone sector in Israel during his tenure as Communications Minister. The electorate's approval of Kahlon for sharply reducing the cost of mobile phone services and promising similar consumer victories in the future was demonstrated on election day. Moshe Kahlon's new party will have 10 seats in the next Parliament.

Of course, international interest in Israel's election has little to do with price of cottage cheese. It is Israel's foreign policy and a strong desire to see a final and permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians that sparks the interest of non-Israelis in Israeli affairs. We hope, as Israelis do, that change can come through the ballot box.

Yet if peace could be advanced merely by replacing Netanyahu, why did peace not come in the post-Oslo days of Barak, Olmert, Rabin and Peres when hope was abundant and Bob Carr was still pleased with the Jewish State?

For generations, Israeli leaders have done what the Palestinian leadership has failed to do - prepare their people for the compromises necessary to achieve peace. Veteran U.S. Middle-East negotiator Dennis Ross cites this as a precondition for peace, which the Palestinians have failed to fulfil.

Israeli society has reluctantly though optimistically reconciled itself with the concept of trading land for peace, a formula that resulted in durable peace treaties with two former bitter enemies, Egypt and Jordan.

Israel has also experienced the anguish of forcibly evacuating ancient communities from sacred lands - notably in Gaza in 2005 and by leaving areas of the West Bank pursuant to interim agreements with the Palestinians. To date, no leader of fortitude has emerged among the Palestinians to tell them that they too will have to make hard compromises that run counter to their "narrative" - on Jerusalem, on the so-called right of return of refugees (and their descendants) and on accepting Israel permanently as a majority-Jewish State.

The rejection by the Palestinians of three comprehensive peace offers at Camp David (2000), Taba (2001) and Annapolis (2007) has fed the collective Israeli belief that the Palestinians are simply not interested in peace. On each occasion, the Palestinians turned down a national home in territory encompassing land equal to the totality of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and with a capital in east Jerusalem.

The Palestinian strategy has always been all or nothing. And nothing is what they have achieved. In contrast, when the Jews were still stateless, the future founding President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann said that the Jews wouldaccept a state the size of napkin, such was the Jewish desire to finally restore self-determination.

The lengths to which Israel will compromise in order to reach peace when there is a genuine partner to reach peace with, are a matter of historical record. Israel concluded a peace with Egypt at Camp David in 1979, just 6 years after Sadat had attacked Israel on the holiest Jewish day, Yom Kippur. Israel relinquished the Sinai Peninsula in its entirety, land nearly twelve times the size of the West Bank, in exchange for paper assurances and symbolic recognitions. The decision was made by Menachem Begin, Israel's first prime minister affiliated with the political right.

In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon following decades of terror attacks launched from that area first by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and then by Iran's proxy, Hezbollah. Barak had calculated that Israel's unilateral withdrawal would improve its international image and deny Hezbollah the legitimacy it craved. After all, Hezbollah's declared goal was the liberation of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation.

Instead of disarming or integrating into the Lebanese army when its mission was complete, Hezbollah stood bolstered by the Israeli withdrawal, set its sights on government and established itself as the foremost terrorist organisation in the world. Heinous terrorist attacks on Israelis and Jews throughout the world, devastating rocket barrages from the north and lethal cross-border skirmishes have all followed on a regular basis.

Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the evacuation of nine thousand Israeli citizens, some by force, many of whom still live in inadequate temporary housing, saw the Palestinians looting and destroying ancient synagogues and agricultural infrastructure intended to benefit the people of Gaza. This withdrawal was presided over by a right wing government, that of Ariel Sharon, further disproving the proposition that a right wing government in Israel is an obstacle to peace.

The Gaza disengagement resulted in the establishment of autocratic rule by a terrorist Hamas regime, the violent ouster of the Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction and the development of a military capacity which Hamas uses to deliberately devastate the lives of Israel's southern communities, largely at the expense of constructing much-needed civilian infrastructure in Gaza.

Conditioned by the history of its nation and of the nature of its region, Israelis are wary of unilateral withdrawal, look with trepidation at the marauding jihadists over the borders in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, and do not believe that the Palestinian leadership desires an end to the conflict. And can we blame them?

Not even the most left-wing Israeli would agree to withdraw from the West Bank if it would mean giving further "attack grounds to radical Islam," to use Netanyahu's words. In 1967, the West Bank was used by Jordan as a base from which to launch attacks into Israel, which is why Israel captured the West Bank in the first place. Ever since, Israel has steadfastly refused to relinquish its control over the West Bank until it receives iron-clad assurances that that territory will never again be used as a base to attack it.

What can Australia do?

What then should be the role of the Australian Government in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in light of the return of a Netanyahu-led government?

One things is clear. Don't do what Melissa Parke did. The Labor MP for Fremantle and former UN lawyer in Gaza has not only used her position in the Federal Parliament to encourage boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel but recently delivered an expression of "concern at the victory of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud Party." This peculiar intrusion into the democratic right of the Israeli people to elect their own government reveals the sort of mentality that typifies the contemporary far-left, convinced that their elite political judgement is to be preferred to that of the people in a democratic vote.

In the wake of the Bay of Pigs crisis, United States President John F. Kennedy told the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that "the present regime in Cuba does not suit the United States. If there were a different government there, the U.S. attitude would be different." Gromyko replied: "On what basis does the American leadership assume that the Cubans ought to order their internal affairs, not according to their own judgment, but as Washington thinks fit?"

No doubt the Israelis, if they even notice Parke's speech, would convey to her a few choice words to the same effect.

The day after Parke's speech, Amnesty International delivered a long overdue report condemning Hamas for its "flagrant disregard" for civilian life in its 2014 war with Israel and held it responsible for, among other deadly attacks, a failed rocket barrage on Israeli civilians which fell short and killed 11 Palestinians. At the time, Israel was reflexively blamed for the deaths. Parke will have seen news of the Amnesty report but will no doubt let it pass to the keeper.

As a respected interlocutor of good will and standing, Australia has an important role to play in helping the parties to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Maintain international support

The risks to Israel's security associated with withdrawal from the West Bank are far greater than with any previous disengagement. The distance from the Green Line (the 1949 Israeli-Jordanian armistice line separating the internationally recognised territory of Israel from the West Bank) to Israel's Mediterranean coast is only nine miles in some parts, meaning that every inch of Israel will be threatened should an Israeli military presence be replaced by Islamist forces - a precedent already set in southern Lebanon, Gaza and the Sinai.

The territory in dispute is not only strategically crucial, it is the ancient heartland of the Jewish people. As Israeli politicians like to say, the prophets did not walk on the beaches of Tel Aviv; they strode the land of Judea and Samaria, the territory more commonly referred to as the West Bank since the time of the Jordanian military occupation in 1949.

For Israel to take the immeasurable risks associated with withdrawal from the West Bank, what is required is not the threats of misguided activist MPs or antagonism by well-meaning U.S. Presidents, but the assurance that Israel's legitimate security needs will be met and its allies will always stand by it.

Israel calculated that withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon would gain it favour, undermine those that seek to undermine it, and give it moral clout in defending itself if attacked from the vacated territory. Its calculations were wrong. Israel gained no favour from those withdrawals. Its enemies were merely emboldened. Now whenever Israel is attacked from lands it wholly vacated, it is nevertheless routinely depicted as the brute and aggressor. If Israel is to have an incentive for withdrawal, this, among other things, needs to change.

Deter unilateralism

Acts of unilateralism by the Palestinians must never be indulged. They only play into the Palestinian strategy of extracting maximum concessions from the Israelis while conceding nothing in return. In practice, they do not positively impact on the lives of Palestinians and merely bestow on their leaders a sense of self-righteous triumphalism that is out of touch with reality, and a belief that unilateral action or even the threat of it is a legitimate means of advancing their interests.

James Baker, the U.S. Secretary of State in the George H.W. Bush administration and a veteran of Israeli-Arab negotiations, observed that "you can't force-feed a peace plan" because no state will act against its core interests. Peace must be negotiated.

Australia's abstention in the United Nations vote on upgraded Palestinian status in 2012, a move championed by Bob Carr for reasons that remain unclear, contributed to the Palestinian success in gaining access to international bodies through which to prosecute grievances against Israel and avoid the concessions that come from bilateral talks. It is precisely this sort of attempt to circumvent negotiations that must not be tolerated.

In terms of lethality and human suffering, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians pales in comparison to events in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region. The plight of Palestinians in Syria, where they are besieged and starved by the Assad regime, is far graver than in the Palestinian territories. And yet, it is the conflict between the Jewish State and the Palestinian armed factions that holds international attention; it wearies and intrigues in equal measure.

In our desire to see an end to the conflict, we grasp at possible "game-changers" to maintain hope, measures that we believe could fundamentally bring change and an eventual resolution. The election of Barack Obama was supposed to bring hope to the Middle East. It has not. The passage of resolutions in European parliaments and the UN in support of Palestinian statehood was supposed to buttress diplomatic efforts and to fortify the moderates on both sides. It has not.

Yet for true peace to come it is not a change in Israeli leadership that is required, or a tweak to party platforms in Australia, rather it is the realisation that while the Jews were once ready to take a napkin-sized state, for the Palestinians the conflict remains a zero-sum game. For the moment, a Palestinian State and an end to the conflict thus remain sadly out of reach.

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