Israel’s Election in a Bubble

TEL AVIV – Forty-five years into Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and four years after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government became the undertaker of the two-state solution, an electoral campaign run in utter denial of Israel’s Palestinian conundrum has just ended with yet another Netanyahu government in office. Yes, Netanyahu was humbled by the electorate, but his loss of support was not a victory for the peace camp. The victors were an amorphous political center, focused on domestic issues, and the annexationist religious right.

A country whose modern economy is fully integrated into the global system and whose conflict with the Palestinians has for decades drawn the attention of the global media and the major world powers has gone to the polls as if it were a separate, secluded planet. Parties in the center campaigned for “social justice,” for ultra-religious students to “share the burden” of military service (from which they have been exempt since Israel’s founding), and in defense of the country’s struggling middle class.

With opinion polls indicating that only 18% of the electorate was concerned with the Palestinian problem, Labor, the party of Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords, refrained from even mentioning the peace process, lest it alienate potential voters. Labor’s current leader, Shelly Yachimovich, superseded the fatalism of her predecessor, Ehud Barak, who maintained that the Palestinian conflict has no solution, with the politics of denial; she refused even to acknowledge that there is a problem.

Israel’s life in a bubble was also exemplified by the two major religious parties in the elections. Shas, led by a 92-year-old rabbi, combined its traditional defense of the have-nots with its fight for stricter rules for conversion to Judaism, an undisguised allusion to Israel’s masses of Russian immigrants with doubtful Jewish credentials. Meanwhile, Jewish Home, a party linked to fanatical, messianic rabbis for whom Zionism should now be imbued with eschatological meaning, challenged Netanyahu to adopt a more resolute expansionist policy in Palestinian territories.