Op-Ed: Israel’s political cycle not stuck on the right

WASHINGTON (JTA) — With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poised to win re-election later this month, some critics of Israel’s peace and security policies worry out loud that Israel’s political cycle — its pattern of cycling alternately between the political left and right — is stuck on the right.

“This is the Israeli reality of 2013, enabled in part by American politicians and staunch supporters in this country … as the two-state solution slips through our fingers,” asserts J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami in the Washington Post.

Anyone who has ever taken a course in economics is familiar with the concept of the business cycle, the observation that our economic fortunes expand and contract in distinct phases. Politics, similarly, has its own natural cycle. One political party becomes strong, thinks it has a lock on the electorate, purges its own ranks of political moderates, enunciates policy positions at odds with mainstream sensibilities and alienates the very middle-of-the-road voters that brought it to power. Republicans and Democrats have been vulnerable to its vicissitudes.

Israel, to be sure, is no stranger to the political cycle. Just like Americans, Israelis tend to lean left or right for a period until the ideological camp in power overreaches or external conditions dictate otherwise, sending the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction. Since the onset of the peace process with the Palestinians in the early 1990s, the Israeli public has ousted Israeli prime ministers whenever the prime minister has appeared resistant to opportunities for peace or appeared too eager for peace in the face of intransigence on the other side.

In 1992, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lost the election for being perceived as inflexible in the Madrid peace talks; in 1996, Shimon Peres lost for being too forthcoming in the Oslo process; in 1999, Netanyahu lost for being too hawkish; and in 2001, Ehud Barak lost for being too dovish. Since that time, two prime ministers — Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert — left office for reasons other than their stances on peace and security. Elected for a second time in the spring of 2009, Netanyahu is on track to win another term in office.

If the political cycle holds true, sooner or later there will be a perceived opening for peace, at which time either the right-leaning government will move to the center (e.g. Begin’s peace with Egypt or Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza) or will be defeated by a left-leaning challenger.

Some critics of current Israeli government policy are troubled that Israelis haven’t punished Netanyahu for a lack of progress in the peace process. They surmise that the growth of the Israeli religious nationalist camp and right-leaning Jews from the former Soviet Union has moved the electorate decidedly to the right. Israelis, they fulminate, may permanently forsake the possibility of a two-state solution.

But in a recent poll of Israeli attitudes toward peace, a full two-thirds of the respondents said they would support a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps and a demilitarized Palestinian state. Even a majority of Likud voters supported such a deal.

The issue, then, is not that Israeli attitudes have hardened against making painful compromises for peace — quite the contrary — it’s that most Israelis don’t believe that peace is a realistic option at the moment.

It’s not hard to see why. Given the massive unrest sweeping through the Arab world and the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood, many wonder how a fledgling Palestinian state could stave off such radical forces or survive a Hamas onslaught.

The results of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas’ subsequent takeover and the unremitting rocket fire aimed at Israeli population centers do not inspire confidence. Rather than setting a precedent for neighborly relations and sound governance, it gave Israelis a glimpse into a possible mess on its eastern border in the event of a peace deal in the West Bank.

“There will be those who say, “If you didn’t like the book [in Gaza], why would you see the movie [in the West Bank]?” observed Middle East analyst David Makovsky.

And while some critics of Israel’s peace policies point to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent statements indicating that he would be willing to come to terms with a Jewish state, fresh on the mind of many Israelis is Abbas’ refusal to negotiate for 10 months during Israel’s 2010 settlement freeze, the recent unilateral move for statehood at the United Nations and various statements denying the Jewish connection to the land.

Most Israelis don’t believe enough has changed in the Palestinian camp or in regional conditions to justify a shift in approach.

Do critics of Israeli policy expect that no matter what the Arab world dishes out, Israelis will continue to elect governments with a predilection for making comprehensive peace offers to the Palestinians? Do they expect Israel to be on a permanent peace footing?

If so, then they want Israel to be a country not made up of diverse people with diverse attitudes subject to political swings, but of people just like them who will make concessions at any time and at all costs. They want Israel to be a country like no other — that cannot exist — because all democratic polities are, in their own way, beholden to the inexorable logic of the political cycle.

David Bernstein is the executive director of the David Project.