As Israelis vote, peace seems distant
Benjamin Netanyahu seems poised for re-election as Israel's prime minister in Tuesday's voting, the result of the failure of his opponents to unite behind a viable candidate against him - and the fact that most Israelis no longer seem to believe it's possible to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
The widely held assumption of a victory by Netanyahu comes despite his grim record: there is no peace process, there is growing diplomatic isolation and a slowing economy, and his main ally has been forced to step down as foreign minister because of corruption allegations.
Even so, Netanyahu has managed to convince many Israelis that he offers a respectable choice by projecting experience, toughness and great powers of communication in both native Hebrew and flawless American English.
He was also handed a gift by the opposition. Persistent squabbling among an array of parties in the moderate camp has made this the first election in decades without two clear opposing candidates for prime minister. Even Netanyahu's opponents have suggested his victory is inevitable.
"His rivals are fragmented," said Yossi Sarid, a dovish former Cabinet minister who now writes a column for the Haaretz newspaper. "He benefits by default," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
The confusion and hopelessness that now characterize the issue of peace with the Palestinians has cost the moderates their historical campaign focus.
Many Israelis are disillusioned with the bitter experience of Israel's unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005 that led to years of violence. Others believe Israel's best possible offers have been made and rejected already, concluding that they cannot meet the Palestinians' minimal demands.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that in 2008 he offered the Palestinians roughly 95 percent of the West Bank, and additional territory from Israel in a "land swap." He also said he offered shared control of Jerusalem, including its holy sites. The Palestinians have disputed some of Olmert's account and suggested they could not close a deal with a leader who was by then a lame duck.
"There can't be peace because we've tried everything already. All the options have been exhausted. They apparently don't want to make peace, said Eli Tzarfati, a 51-year-old resident of the northern town of Migdal Haemek. "It doesn't matter what you give them - it won't be enough."
Tzarfati expressed what seems to be a common sentiment.
A poll conducted last week in Israel by the New Wave Polling Research Institute found that 52 percent of respondents support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a peace agreement. Yet 62 percent said they do not believe the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is a partner for peace - and an identical number said it is not possible to reach a peace agreement. The survey questioned 576 people and had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
In the absence of peace talks, those who wanted to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands used to speak of a unilateral pullout from at least some of the territories. But that idea has been mostly removed from the table because of the Gaza pullout, which led to the territory's takeover by Hamas militants and years of rocket fire into Israel.
This situation leaves many Israelis at a loss over what to do next.
Since most of the Palestinians are now living in autonomous zones inside the West Bank and prevented from entering Israel, and violence has largely subsided, the most attractive option to Israelis seems to be ignoring the issue.
That is what the main opposition party chose to do in this campaign. Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich has mostly focused on a populist social message in hopes of attracting working-class citizens who might otherwise vote for the hard-liners. In the past, Labor has been the leader of Israel's peace camp.
Another member of the moderate camp, former TV personality Yair Lapid, argues primarily for ending the costly government subsidies and draft exemptions granted to Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority.
Only one party with national leadership ambitions, the new "Movement" formed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has made Mideast peace the centerpiece of its campaign. Polls show the party gaining little traction.
Sarid dismissed current public opinion as a "weather vane" that can easily shift.
"Israel has gone to war seven, eight times. It never despaired of going to war," he said. "If after seven attempts at war you don't despair, and after the first attempt at peace you do, that seems strange, no?"
Whatever the results for individual parties, the operative question is whether all the right-wing parties together can secure at least 61 seats of the 120 in parliament, the minimum for a majority coalition. Although all polls predict they will, several major polls last Friday showed the right with only 63 seats, versus 57 for the parties of the center-left.
Though the trend has been constant, the gap falls close to the margin of error of the polls, and they have been wrong in the past.
Should the right wing and religious parties fail to muster a majority, there will be a mad scramble on the center-left to try to form a coalition on their own. Under such a shocking result, the prime minister could end up being Yachimovich, a former radio journalist who admitted once backing Israel's Communist party.
Netanyahu has maintained a lead with a message that the country needs a tough-minded and experienced leader to face down dangers including the Iranian nuclear program, potentially loose chemical weapons in Syria and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Egypt and other countries in the Arab Spring.
By comparison, the Palestinian issue seems less important to many Israelis.
Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance is dominated by lawmakers who say the conflict can be managed, but not resolved. The surging pro-settler Jewish Home party has gone even further. It advocates annexation of large chunks of the West Bank, the heartland of any future Palestinian state.
Critics warn that Israelis are ignoring the issue at their peril. First, there are increasing signs that the current lull in violence may be temporary - both because the Palestinian street is getting frustrated and because Abbas' Palestinian Authority may cease the security cooperation which even Israeli officials have credited with the halt in violence.
Beyond that, there is a persistent chorus warning that the status quo is ultimately self-defeating for Israel because the default outcome is a single entity in the Holy Land - comprising Israel and all the areas it seized in the 1967 war. Based on current birthrates, most experts believe that Arabs would soon be the majority.
Palestinian officials say that Abbas has repeatedly warned Israeli visitors in recent months that Israel could end up like an "apartheid-style" state with a Jewish minority ruling over a disenfranchised Arab majority. At that point, the Arabs would turn their struggle away from independence and instead seek equality in a single state.
"Sooner or later the Israeli public should come to the realization that the longevity, security and legitimacy of their state are dependent on their treatment of the Palestinian people and their commitment to peace and justice, not to the subjugation of a whole nation," Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, wrote in Haaretz.
Many Israelis on the left agree with Ashrawi but have concluded a loss on Tuesday is inevitable, and they have grown increasingly apocalyptic in their warnings about what lies ahead.
Calling the occupation of the West Bank "a cancer," columnist and songwriter Yonatan Gefen argued that even a future civil war among Israelis is not out of the question.
"Either we put an end to our enslavement to the territories peacefully," he also wrote in Haaretz," or we will find ourselves ... fighting each other in order to save the people from themselves."
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