As Israel heads to the polls again, the country will turn inward and neglect its diplomatic woes in favor of talk about polls, primaries and the other sorts of politicking that characterize election campaigns.
Everything having to do with the Palestinians — including efforts to enlist the international community to help prevent the Hamas-run Gaza Strip from rearming, and to thwart the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral statehood bid at the United Nations — will take a backseat to domestic politics for the months to come. And much as the international community would like to see Israelis and Palestinians resume peace talks, pressure on the two sides to get back to the negotiating table will ease. Nobody expects Israel to make any moves on this front in the middle of an election campaign.
It’s not as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas were close to sitting down for substantial negotiations. But now even the calls for renewed talks — issued every so often by (more and less) well-meaning politicians and diplomats across the globe, especially during visits here — will fall silent. Threats of sanctions if Israel fails to move toward a two-state solution, such as those issued recently by the European Union, will likely cease for the duration of the campaign as well. Those worried about time running out for the two-state solution will regret the months lost.
“New elections will probably bring us some reprieve,” a senior Israeli official said Tuesday. “The countries seeking to recognize Palestine argue that their move is intended to exert pressure on Israel to make concessions. They know that this won’t be effective in the middle of an Israeli election season.”
Parliaments that have already scheduled Palestine recognition votes — for instance, in Portugal, Denmark, and Slovenia — are unlikely to cancel merely because Israel is entering another election campaign. But the decisions these parliaments will make will be less noticed, because no one expects Israelis to make concessions or even to deal with the Palestinian question before they’ve decided who their next leader will be.
More focus on diplomatic issues than in 2013
On the other hand, the 2015 elections will likely focus much more on diplomatic topics than the last elections nearly two years ago. The peace process with the Palestinians was hardly mentioned during the previous campaign. Rather, inspired by the social protests from summer of 2011, the vote was dominated by socioeconomic themes.
Before the January 2013 elections, the newly created Hatnua was the only party that focused its campaign around the Palestinian issue, and its leader Tzipi Livni had just returned to politics, after a hiatus, relatively late in the game. As justice minister and chief peace negotiator, Livni currently is a key member of the government, and she will likely place her call for a peace deal at the very heart of her campaign. (The polls don’t bode too well for Hatnua.)
Ahead of the last election cycle, then-Labor party head Shelly Yachimovich refused to address the Palestinian question, focusing her entire campaign on social justice issues. Her successor at the helm of Israel’s largest center-left party, Isaac Herzog, is much more interested in the diplomatic process and Israel’s standing in the world in general, and will certainly address what he considers the prime minister’s failure in this area.
Also, this summer’s Operation Protective Edge is still fresh in voters’ minds. The way this war was conducted, the climate in which it was perceived internationally, and the incoherence with which it was ended, leaving the specter of a renewed attacks from Hamas hovering over Israel, might also turn security and diplomatic issues into central election topics. (The November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, which took place a few weeks before the last elections, was much shorter and produced almost no Israeli casualties, compared to 72 Israeli fatalities in the summer.)
To be sure, the 2015 elections will not only be about diplomatic issues. The centrist Yesh Atid will surely try to present itself as the party fighting the high cost of living, championing party leader Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s plans for affordable housing. What Yesh Atid aspires to be for mainstream Israelis, Shas has long been for its constituency, Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews. The yet-to-be-formed new party of former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, which many pundits believe could be this election cycle’s new Yesh Atid, is also expected to raise the flag of social justice.
But the respite from international pressure will be brief. As soon as the votes have been counted and the coalition haggling has been concluded, the international community will awake from its election-induced hibernation. World leaders will once again start pressuring the inhabitant of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, urging him (or, most improbably, her) to actively move toward a peace deal with the Palestinians. And then we’ll all see if, in this area, the premature return to the ballot box actually changed anything.