As results poured in Tuesday night in Israel’s general election, headline writers the world over rushed to announce the prodigious drop in support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. The unexpected success of newcomer Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party — committed to the two-state solution – inspired fresh hope for a resumption of peace talks with Palestinians.
Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi shares little of that enthusiasm. “The Israeli political scene is remarkable for creating newcomers,” he said, citing the Kadima Party, who won a plurality seven years ago but barely crossed the minimum threshold necessary to secure a seat in this new Knesset. While he admitted the election results were “a surprise” and represented “resistance to the right-wing anti-democratic… and anti-Arab trends” in Israeli politics, he remained skeptical about the bigger picture. “I don’t see that there’s a huge amount of hope [for final-status negotiations],” he said. Instead, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he anticipates more continuity than change.
“The vote is split 50-50 between Greater Land of Israel supporters [and their opponents],” Khalidi said. The 120-seat Knesset is divided down the middle between hard-line parties who he says are “over-my-dead-body against” Palestinian statehood, and another bloc dominated by centrists but including smaller left-wing and Arab parties whom he calls “positive but lukewarm” towards talks. Khalidi said the election result is “likely to create a logjam,” and discounted the possibility of a bold push toward negotiations.
The obstacles to peace, suggested the Palestinian-American scholar, are structural. He cited the “weakness of the Arab world, the inability of the Arabs to push for a settlement, division and weakness on the Palestinian side, and the feebleness of American policy.” He described the United States as a “dishonest broker” for peace over the last 20 years, perpetually favoring Israeli positions. Indeed, while successive American administrations have adopted policies opposed the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, US officials have for the most part refused to pressure the Israelis to adopt a different tack.
Negotiations within the current framework, said Khalidi, have been “completely futile and completely pointless.” The solution he proposes is to base negotiations not on former Israeli Prime Minister Menahim Begin’s Camp David formula, but on the United Nations resolutions, like Resolution 242, that lock in the “land-for-peace” formula and provide a specific timetable for ending the occupation. As it is now, he said, talks languish and Palestinians and Israelis are left with “a further consecration and cementing of occupation and settlement.”
For those reasons, the region’s Arabs are deeply cynical about the prospect that any Israeli election could lead to an end Israel’s occupation. “As far as Palestinians under occupation or Palestinians in the Diaspora are concerned,” said Khalidi, “it’s tweedle-dee-tweedle-dum.”
Real progress, he argued, would require courageous Israeli-Jewish politicians “to say that everybody is a citizen,” both Arabs and Jews. Khalidi explained that if they are serious about peace, Israeli politicians need to make genuine overtures to the Palestinians instead of “dangling stuff in front of their eyes and then leaving them in the same state of dispossession, poverty, and discrimination.” Only a majority coalition, compromised of both Jews and Arabs in favor of “stopping subsidies to settlers, spending money on social welfare, and changing the drift toward greater inequality,” he explained, could ever be able to engineer a breakthrough. “Nobody dares to do that,” Khalidi said, “[former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin didn’t dare to do that.”
Khalidi considers this prospect to be unlikely. “Neither [Labor Party leader Shelly] Yachimovich nor Lapid nor even the [left-wing] Meretz politicians really have the courage to build up a coalition and bring Arabs into the government,” he said.
Max Marder is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @maxamarder.