Analysis: Does peace with the Palestinians matter this Israeli election?

The Palestinians, peace talks, and settlements seem to be almost entirely irrelevant to this election season.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas extends his hand to US President Donald Trump at the Presidential Palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 23, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas extends his hand to US President Donald Trump at the Presidential Palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 23, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni talks about negotiations with the Palestinians a lot. It’s become her calling card. And yet, it was jarring to read a press release that her spokesman sent this week, where she talked about “an immediate dialogue with the Palestinian Authority,” saying that “separation [from the Palestinians] is an Israeli interest.”
Livni’s comments – which were so characteristic for her, were still a shock to the system because, well, talks have been so low on the agenda for so long.
The Palestinians, peace talks, and settlements seem to be almost entirely irrelevant to this election season.
It would be one thing if it was the Right that wanted to avoid talking about the conflict, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes is more realistic to manage as opposed to resolve in the near future. But it’s the Center and the Left that have deemphasized it.
The word “peace” left the political lexicon long ago. Ahead of the 2015 election, then-Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog defended his avoidance of the word “peace” saying: “We have to be realistic and not naive about it.” But he still talked about negotiations with the Palestinians, something that we have barely heard from like-minded parties in the past month.
The leading opposition party – Israel Resilience, which is led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz – has kept almost entirely quiet on all issues. Gantz made his first political statement on Monday, saying that the Nation-State Law needs to be changed. When it comes to what he thinks about peace talks or what the map would look like after an agreement with the Palestinians, we can only rely on older interviews.
Yesh Atid had a detailed party platform in 2015 that addressed the issue, and party chairman Yair Lapid made comments here and there on the subject over the years, so we have an idea of what he wants – such as keeping the settlement blocs, and organizing a regional conference to help Gaza economically. He even dedicated some time to the matter in an event that was held in English this week. But this has never been Lapid’s focus or his strong suit.
And what does Labor leader Avi Gabbay think should be done? Several Labor MKs have come up with their own peace plan in recent years, but it’s not clear what he endorses. Gabbay has an event planned for Tuesday to discuss a “regional plan,” together with MK Itzik Shmuli – who’s best known for his work on social issues, specifically with helping the elderly – and former foreign correspondent Henrique Cymerman, who joined Labor.
One theory is that Gabbay wants to avoid discussing the Palestinian issue. According to Livni, one of the reasons she and Gabbay had a falling-out leading to the breakup of the Zionist Union, was that she wanted to talk about separation from the Palestinians while Gabbay wanted the campaign to only focus on him.
Perhaps Labor’s shift from what used to be one of its defining issues is why former Peace Now secretary-general Yariv Oppenheimer moved from being a Labor candidate to running in Meretz.
But even Meretz seems to be avoiding the subject. The party’s Facebook page did not use the words “occupation,” “peace” or “Palestinians” in any of its posts of the past three months.
Instead, the focus is on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption, along with the occasional social issue.
The Joint List is the exception to the rule, with bloc leader Ayman Odeh launching the election campaign for the Hadash Party by lamenting “the Right’s increasing oppression of the Palestinian people.”
The irony is that the Right talks about the Palestinians fairly often, because it’s an easy way to sling mud. When Netanyahu successfully postponed the election for over a month, it was in part because of his caterwauling about his coalition partners, who were repeating the political mistakes that led to the Oslo Accords being signed. When Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked launched their New Right Party, they brought up Netanyahu’s past support for a Palestinian state.
National Union leadership candidate Bezalel Smotrich said in an interview with Reshet Bet that he doesn’t trust the New Right, because Netanyahu and former prime minister Ariel Sharon had said that they opposed a Palestinian state, and then made concessions.
There are still almost three months until the election, and campaigns really get into high gear after lists are submitted, which will be around February 20-21. Then, we might hear a little more about the peace talks.
But maybe not much more. The lack of talk about talks can also partly be attributed to the fact that, unlike in previous elections, there is no US president pressuring Israel to make concessions. US President Donald Trump has put his “deal of the century” on hold until after the election, instead of calling Netanyahu out on the issue like past US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did.
At this point, talks aren’t pressing on the news agenda. Rockets and rioting on the border with Gaza are constantly in the headlines, and that in of itself is a problem, but hardly any Israelis see the Hamas-ruled Gaza as part of the peace-talks equation at this point anyway.
Plus, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah isn’t clamoring to talk. Pro-Palestinian social media accounts have been talking for the past month about how Palestinians are “excluded” from the upcoming election in Israel, saying it proves that the situation is one of apartheid.
But in the meantime, the Palestinian Authority has done everything to avoid giving its people the opportunity to participate in any democratic process at all. Not only has PA President Mahmoud Abbas not held an election since he was elected to a four-year term 14 years ago, but the PA is also avoiding giving its people any kind of hope for a better situation in the future – by continuing to incite violence; paying terrorists and their families; taking unilateral steps in international forums; and snubbing the US, among other moves in order to avoid direct negotiations with Israel. With Israelis seeing the so-called peace partner turning its back on peace, what kind of demands are they going to make on politicians?
The public isn’t demanding peace talks now. Negotiations don’t poll high in the public’s priorities, and clearly no parties’ internal research has pointed to this as a vote-getter, or the politicians would be talking about it more. This could very well turn into a year where negotiating with the Palestinians is just not that much of an election issue.