JERUSALEM — The top story in the Israeli media right now is Barack Obama's blunt warning, transmitted through American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to the Israeli political class. "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are," the U.S. president has said repeatedly, warning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's unyielding stance toward the Palestinians was leading the country toward suicidal isolation.
With an election less than a week away, it's safe to say that Israelis disagree. The most ubiquitous campaign banners on billboards and highways are Netanyahu's "A strong prime minister means a strong Israel" and rising star Naftali Bennett's "No to a Palestinian state, yes to The Jewish Home," which is the name of Bennett's extreme right-wing party.
This Israeli campaign has thrown into stark relief the growing rift between how the world and how Israelis view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To the world, Israel faces a clear choice -- either go on ruling the Palestinians or meet their demand for independence. Israelis used to agree that this was indeed the dilemma -- in years past, it's what elections were fought over. Not anymore, though.
In the Israeli election campaign that culminates on Jan. 22, the idea of uprooting West Bank settlements, ending the 45-year military occupation, and making way for a Palestinian state has been pushed off center stage. It's now the preserve of marginal candidates in the multiparty electoral system, artist and intellectual types, and the octogenarian figurehead president, Shimon Peres. A new idea has risen to take its place: More than ever, popular voices are calling for Israel to annex the bulk of the West Bank, which is the primary territory of a would-be Palestinian state.
Most of the opposition has seemingly given up on the peace process. Ex-journalist Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Labor Party, makes virtually no mention of the occupation or the Palestinians, concentrating solely on socioeconomic issues in the hope of attracting right-wing voters. Yair Lapid, a former media star and head of the new Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future") party, does the same. Among mainstream candidates, only former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni runs on a peace platform -- but she undercuts her credibility by seemingly angling for a spot in the next government, which, barring the Messiah's arrival, will be led again by Netanyahu, only this time with an even more hard-line, anti-Arab supporting cast. Livni's party, at any rate, is sinking in the polls and is expected to have a negligible presence in the next Knesset.
The reasons for the Israeli peace camp's disintegration are clear. The bus bombings of the Second Intifada killed the public's belief in negotiations; then the rockets from Gaza that followed the 2005 "disengagement" from the strip killed their belief in unilateral withdrawal. As far as the Jewish majority is concerned, that leaves only one solution -- managing the conflict with military force. That is what Netanyahu has done, and he has been able to keep a lid on the situation -- in the four years of his term, Israelis have been almost untouched by political violence. They feel safe, which is more important than anything else -- including the future, which they feel they have no control over anyway.
Fatalism has taken hold among the Israeli public. In a public opinion poll taken at the turn of the new year, Israeli Jews agreed by a 67 percent to 30 percent margin that "no matter which of the large parties wins in the upcoming elections, the peace process with the Palestinians is at a standstill for reasons that have nothing to do with Israel and there is no chance of progress in the foreseeable future."
So much for the public -- but what about their leader? What about Netanyahu's supposed change of heart, dating to his acclaimed 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, when he purportedly broke with a lifetime of opposition to Palestinian statehood by accepting it in principle? It was just a "tactic," Tzipi Hotovely, one of many ultranationalists who've ascended to the top tier of Likud, told a settler newspaper late last month.
Hotovely isn't the only Likudnik to downplay the importance of Netanyahu's remarks. "He didn't speak about a state in the full sense. He spoke about a long list of conditions that he himself says have no chance of being fulfilled in the near future due to the actions of the other side," said Yariv Levin, another rising Likud far-rightist. "Two states for two peoples was never part of [Likud's] election platform," said Education Minister Gideon Saar, yet another Likud ultra.
While no organized political opposition exists, some political figures have tried to make hay over Netanyahu's palpable disdain for cutting a deal with the Palestinians. A "top-ranking statesman" -- widely presumed to be Peres -- told an Israeli newspaper late last month: "The prime minister discounts the entire world. He is not interested in the Palestinians, but this will all blow up in our faces."
Netanyahu, however, has batted away such criticisms by pointing to the tumultuous events gripping the Middle East. After Peres later delivered the same message on the record, though in more diplomatic terms, the premier responded by noting the upheavals in Egypt and Syria as well as Hamas's takeover of Gaza, warning that Hamas could do the same in the West Bank, thereby establishing a "third outpost for Iranian terrorism."
"Therefore," Netanyahu said, "as opposed to the voices that I have heard recently urging me to run forward, make concessions, [and] withdraw, I think that the diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste."
But Israeli politics abhors a vacuum, especially during election season, so a new "solution" has been run up the flag pole -- annexation. This plan involves making "Area C" -- the patchwork of territory that makes up nearly 62 percent of the West Bank and surrounds the 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank -- a legal part of the state of Israel. The roughly 50,000 Palestinians living in Area C would be offered Israeli citizenship, including the right to vote.
As for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the remaining 38-plus percent of the West Bank, they wouldn't be offered Israeli citizenship -- but they would get "autonomy" and would be allowed to run their lives without overt interference from Israel. The Jewish state, however, would retain sovereignty over the area, including military control, just in case the Palestinians didn't go along with the program. As for the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, they would go on living under Israeli blockade, cut off from the West Bank.
"It will abolish the claims of those who accuse us of apartheid," says Jewish Home's Bennett, the rising star of this election campaign, in a video about the plan. His envisioned map of Palestinian autonomy, however, recalls nothing so much as old South Africa's bantustans.
Bennett wasn't the first to warm to this idea: He was preceded by several powerful Likudniks who have been publicly pushing for partial or gradual annexation of the West Bank over the last year. One of them is soon-to-be Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, who turned up at a well-attended New Year's Day conference on annexation to suggest yet another creative solution to the conflict -- offer each Palestinian family in the West Bank $500,000 to emigrate.
Netanyahu is a milquetoast liberal among this crowd. The prime minister is not a member of the annexation camp -- it's inconceivable that he would provoke the international community in this way, especially when the world wouldn't recognize the annexation of the West Bank any more than it does Israel's annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. And why should Netanyahu court international outrage when Israel has long been engaged in the quiet, "creeping annexation" of Area C by means of settlement expansion and destruction of Palestinian homes?
So though this brain wave of Bennett and the Likud radicals is unlikely to be implemented anytime soon, it may plant the seeds for future conflicts with the world, which is already losing patience with Israeli intransigence. It doesn't seem Obama will have reason to change his gloomy assessment of the powers that be in Jerusalem anytime soon.