Splintered left rails hopelessly at confident right in debate that mirrors pre-election voting trends

Panel on Israel’s Jewish and democratic future given impetus by furor over hardline leader’s comments on insubordination

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (right) and Hatnua no. 2 Amir Peretz take part in a panel debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, on Sunday, Dec. 23 (photo credit: Dotan Gur/courtesy)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (right) and Hatnua no. 2 Amir Peretz take part in a panel debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, on Sunday, Dec. 23 (photo credit: Dotan Gur/courtesy)

TEL AVIV — An election debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict Sunday offered a snapshot of the Israeli political system weeks before a national election: a confident right-wing bloc favoring a continuation of the status quo in the West Bank and dismissive of the consequences, and a fragmented collection of center and left-wing parties who object to the way things are but struggle to offer a viable alternative.

The debate at Tel Aviv University included leaders or representatives from the Likud and Jewish Home parties, from Yesh Atid, Labor and Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnua, and from Meretz. A 150-seat classroom was packed and dozens were left waiting outside.

The debate’s topic was preserving Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

Israeli politicians participate in a panel debate on on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, on Sunday, Dec. 23 (photo credit: Dotan Gur/courtesy)
Israeli politicians participate in a panel debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, on Sunday, December 23 (photo credit: Dotan Gur/courtesy)

The event quickly came to focus on a statement made on Thursday by one participant, Naftali Bennett, head of the religious nationalist Jewish Home party. Bennet said in a TV interview Thursday that he would disobey an order to evacuate settlers, calling such an order “illegal.”

The issue of disobeying orders is a fraught one in Israel’s ideologically riven society, whose survival depends on a military in which service is mandatory.

For Bennett, a political newcomer and a rising star in these elections, it was a first serious political misstep. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has seen some of his voters defect to Bennett’s party, called Bennett’s stance “very grave” and said no one who supported insubordination could serve in his government.

‘Our plan is to stay in Judea and Samaria,’ the Likud representative said. ‘That’s the plan’

Bennett, an officer in the reserves, was forced to backtrack. An order to evacuate “an Arab village or a Jewish village” was “terrible,” he said Sunday, but was trumped by the necessity of obeying the law.

“In the unbearable clash between these values, I call on every soldier, every officer, even me, Major Naftali Bennett, to obey IDF orders, because we have only one IDF, and if everyone does whatever they want we won’t have an IDF and we won’t have a state,” he said. He did not explain why he had made the original comment.

Netanyahu, however, is now a member of his own Likud party’s increasingly lean liberal wing. The Likud representative at Sunday’s debate, Tzipi Hotovely, criticized Bennett for “cheap demagoguery” — not for saying he would disobey orders, or for retracting that statement without explanation, but for suggesting that any settlements would ever be uprooted. That idea “no longer exists” in Israel’s political discourse, she claimed.

“Our plan is to stay in Judea and Samaria,” she said later in the debate. “That’s the plan.”

When Netanyahu made a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University expressing support for the creation of a Palestinian state, Hotovely suggested, he had not meant it.

Hotovely’s specialty is delivering smooth, angry bursts of rhetoric on demand; she is so adept at this that after one impassioned paean to eternal Jewish control over the West Bank she was actually looking bored and tapping on her iPhone before completing her sentence.

Bennett’s party platform calls for Israel to annex most of the West Bank — the parts designated by the Oslo Accords as Area C, largely rural areas home to the entire settler population and to a small number of Palestinian residents. Such an annexation would leave approximately 2 million Palestinians in enclaves surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory. According to this plan, the Palestinians of the West Bank would have “autonomy” and freedom of movement but not political rights or a state, and would accept this with equanimity.

As even members of Bennett’s party acknowledge, the plan’s success is unlikely because of international opposition. Despite rhetorical differences accentuated by the election campaign, Jewish Home and Likud are thus likely to pursue platforms that are nearly identical — the continuation of the status quo in the West Bank, in which disenfranchised Palestinians live under Israeli control as settlements expand.

Accentuating the similarities between the parties, when the debate’s moderator mentioned that Hotovely had herself once suggested soldiers should disobey orders to evacuate settlers, the Likud MK did not disavow the statement.

‘The world won’t accept it,” Bennett said of his annexation plan for the majority of the West Bank, ‘but the world doesn’t recognize Ramot’

Isaac Herzog of Labor called Bennet’s original stance “very dangerous.”

“You released a demon from a bottle,” Herzog told him, “and revealed the deep inner sentiments of the right, to which you belong.”

The right’s representatives tend to disregard or deny Israel’s worsening international standing and deteriorating ties with the US. They are aided in this by the growing international criticism of actions that are part of the Israeli consensus — like building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. By criticizing construction in areas Israel will never relinquish, the international community has helped Israelis disregard international opinion as unchanging background noise linked not to Israel’s behavior but to its existence.

“The world won’t accept it,” Bennett said of his annexation plan for the majority of the West Bank. “But the world doesn’t recognize Ramot,” he said, naming a large Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, or Israeli control over the Western Wall, or the Golan Heights.

“So we’ll annex another place that the world doesn’t recognize, but we’ll do what’s right for Israel,” he said.

The behavior of the Palestinians since 2000 has convinced many Israelis that any territories they evacuate will be used to attack them — a longstanding claim of the right which has been borne out by events. This has eviscerated the center and left and provided the right with the current political hegemony it enjoys and will almost certainly retain on election day, January 22.

The centrist and dovish parties at the debate were left pushing vague plans like trying to renew negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which has refused to negotiate without a construction freeze in Jerusalem, chose not to accept a far-reaching peace offer put forward by prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, and which does not control the Gaza Strip and could lose control of the West Bank if democratic elections are ever held there.

Rabbi Shai Piron of Yesh Atid — a new centrist party headed by the prominent former journalist Yair Lapid — said his party would not enter the government without a guarantee that it would seek negotiations. But Lapid has said he opposes a division of Jerusalem, and Piron said he would not cede sovereignty on the Temple Mount. That represents the Israeli consensus, but without those concessions there is no chance of a peace agreement.

Amir Peretz, the former Labor leader who recently defected to Tzipi Livni’s last-minute political pickup team, Hatnua, called for “confidence-building measures immediately toward Abu Mazen [Abbas]” and said Israel must “call on him to negotiate.” But he gave no reason to think negotiations would succeed now where they have failed in the past.

‘Make no mistake,’ Gal-on said, ‘there is a battle afoot over whether we will stay a democratic country”

Labor’s Herzog said the best option would be an “interim deal” that would allow Israel to pull back from most of the territory while leaving some issues unresolved. The Palestinian Authority, however, has said it will not consider interim arrangements, which it fears will become permanent.

Zahava Gal-on, the leader of Meretz — once a potent force in Knesset, and now a tiny left-wing faction of three MKs — sketched the current political fight in stark terms.

Israel is witnessing a clash between liberal democrats and those supporting a “racist ethnocracy that rules the whole territory and is neither democratic nor Jewish,” she said.

“Make no mistake — there is a battle afoot over whether we will stay a democratic country,” she said.

Sunday’s event was organized by an organization called Blue-White Future, founded by former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and others. The organization’s platform, meant to serve as an alternative to the current impasse, has not been adopted by any party.

The group says that if negotiations are impossible Israel should compensate settlers who live beyond the security fence and pull them out, declaring it has no claim to the rest of the West Bank — but leaving the army in place until a peace deal is reached some time in the future.

That last idea is a result of Israel’s experience after the Gaza withdrawal, when the pullout of settlers and troops was followed by a spike in the quantity and quality of rockets fired from the territory. That, and the 2006 war with Hezbollah fought in Lebanese territory Israel abandoned unilaterally six years earlier, convinced Israelis that unilateral pullouts were too hazardous.

With the Likud and its allies nearly certain to dominate the next government, there is unlikely to be a dramatic attempt to rewrite Israel’s current reality or to change its deployment in the West Bank.

Gilad Sher, a former peace negotiator and one of the leaders of Blue White Future, said Sunday that Israel would pay a high price for paralysis. The status quo, he warned, is a “dangerous, anaesthetizing illusion.”

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