January 23, 2013: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. Reuters/Nir Elias
The story of the Israeli elections is not, as was expected, the dominance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud-Beiteinu coalition with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Instead, it is the unlikely triumph of Yair Lapid, a media celebrity who managed to secure 19 seats in the next Knesset, making his newly formed Yesh Atid, or There Is a Future, the second-largest party in Israel. In the coming days, Lapid will play a pivotal role in the formation of the next governing coalition, and he is certain to receive a ministerial role in any future administration.
What's more, Lapid has offered scant evidence that he views the Palestinian issue any differently than Netanyahu does. When he unveiled his foreign policy platform last year, Lapid chose to do so at a university inside the illegal mega-settlement of Ariel. Israel "must at last get rid of the Palestinians and put a fence between us," he declared, explaining that he chose to launch his campaign at the settlement because "there is no map on which Ariel isn't a part of the state of Israel." Like Netanyahu, he says he strongly opposes the division of Jerusalem, an implicit rejection of the international consensus for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. (The Labor Party, which won 15 seats and is generally labeled center-left, also supports annexing the major settlement blocs.)
In a 2007 column for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonoth, Lapid insisted that ending the occupation would mean certain death for himself and fellow Israeli Jews. He wrote, "It may be true that the humane thing is to remove the roadblocks and checkpoints, to stop the occupation immediately, to enable the Palestinians freedom of movement in the territories, to tear down the bloody inhumane wall, to promise them the basic rights ensured to every individual. It's just that I will end up paying for this with my life.... Call me a weakling; call me thickheaded -- I don't want to die."
With Lapid as the lead partner in a Netanyahu-led coalition, there is no indication that occupation will not deepen, or that settlement expansion will cease. The most concerted challenge to the status quo will not emerge from "centrist" parties like Lapid's Yesh Atid, but from another element that is certain to play a decisive role in the next government and that is the most politically dynamic force in Israeli society today: the pro-settler camp. The settlement movement has captured the heart of Netanyahu's Likud Party, replacing moderate old-timers with a cadre of younger zealots. Then there is Naftali Bennett, a committed religious nationalist and savvy high-tech entrepreneur who has transformed a marginal far-right party, Jewish Home, into a force to be reckoned with.
In the next government, religious nationalists like Bennett are determined to consolidate the right-wing consensus, ending the peace process once and for all and making the empire of West Bank settlements an official part of Israel proper.
An Imperfect Solution
Since the dawn of the peace process, the Israeli government has moved hundreds of thousands of settlers into the West Bank while engaged in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that always seemed to lead nowhere. As long as they avoided drastic moves like annexation and paid lip service to a two-state solution, Israeli governments have been able to expand settlements without fear of concerted international pressure. Netanyahu has been the most aggressive proponent of this approach. In a 2009 address at Bar Ilan University that he reaffirmed late last year, Netanyahu pledged his support for a two-state solution. And like his predecessors from both Labor and Likud, he authorized thousands of new settlement units, including in the E1 corridor, which would complete the encirclement of occupied East Jerusalem, severing it permanently from the West Bank.
Israel's diversionary strategy has succeeded thanks to the near-total absence of pressure from its patron in Washington. However, the status quo has become so entrenched, and the perpetual conflict seems so manageable -- Netanyahu celebrated the one-way peace he presides over as "The Big Quiet" -- that the next generation of rightists no longer feels compelled to mask their agenda with disingenuous appeals to Western opinion. Bennett's rise is the best evidence of the trend. According to current polls, his Jewish Home party stands to receive 11 seats in the next Knesset, a major surge for a small party that commanded little influence in the previous government. Though his party did not perform as well as it hoped, it is likely to play an influential role in Netanyahu's governing coalition, and well into the future.
The 40-year-old son of American immigrants from California, Bennett took the reins of the far-right Jewish Home after leading the Yesha Council, the political lobby of the settlement movement. With the millions he earned from running a start-up technology firm, Bennett purchased a home in Ra'anana, a bedroom community near Tel Aviv populated by the denizens of Israel's knowledge economy. In an election that proved to be a personality contest, Bennett campaigned as the start-up success, the savvy impresario reaping the fruits of the modern Israeli dream.
Since emerging in the media spotlight, he has done his best to cultivate an image of moderation. Bennett was the star of a January 8 debate in Jerusalem sponsored by The Israel Project, a major pro-Israel advocacy group, and the Israeli Government Press Office. Before an audience comprising what seemed like the entire foreign press corps, Bennett sported a button-down shirt and khaki pants, with a knit kippa balanced on the dome of his nearly bald skull. It was much smaller and less colorful than those typically worn by the Jewish zealots who rampage through the hills south of occupied Hebron. A former IDF commando, Bennett regaled his audience with war stories in fluent English and punctuated right-wing talking points with references to Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough and fractured Bob Dylan -- "How many missiles do we have to endure before we think about our situation?"
Before the campaign, Bennett was given to messianic, bigoted outbursts, like the one he delivered during a 2010 debate against the Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi: "When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here," he bellowed at Tibi. "We were here long before you!" But now, with a chance to serve as a key partner in Netanyahu's coalition, Bennett is toning it down. "You would not find a more ardent supporter of integrating Israeli Arabs into Israeli society [than me]..." he declared at The Israel Project's debate. "I'm very much opposed to those foolish provocations that some parties do to Israeli Arabs. I think it's foolish and immoral."
Even as he pivoted to the center-right, Bennett did not miss an opportunity to promote his so-called "Stability Plan." Intended to supplant the various proposals for establishing a Palestinian state that have emerged throughout the peace process, Bennett's blueprint calls for Israel to annex Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where most of the Jewish settlements lie. The area's Palestinian population would be placed under full Israeli control, but would be granted national rights only in Jordan. The major Palestinian population centers would enjoy the status of bantustans under direct Israeli police control, while the Gaza Strip would somehow be forced into a confederation with Egypt.
"It's less than a state, I acknowledge that," Bennett declared to reporters at The Israel Project debate who inquired about his plan for the Palestinians. "Israel would retain the security umbrella on 100 percent of the area. But if we vacate our responsibility, they're just gonna shoot missiles at us!"
Later in The Israel Project debate, a reporter asked Bennett if was concerned that annexing the West Bank would turn Israel into a pariah state. "I am concerned about the potential international isolation," Bennett responded. "But we're sending mixed messages. You can't support a Palestinian state like the Likud does, and then be surprised when the world is mad at you when you don't in fact materialize it. I assert that founding a Palestinian state would make Israel a feeble, weak country. I assert it would create eternal strife here, and I don't think we're making a good enough case."
He continued in a pleading tone, "There is no perfect solution for living here, but there are imperfect ways to live together on the ground. When you bash your head against the wall a hundred times trying to make a solution and don't get it, it's time to take a fresh look."