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16 March 2015updated 05 Oct 2023 8:26am

As Israel heads to the polls, peace in the region seems more distant than ever

Binyamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Yisrael Beytenu - each of Israel's potential leaders faces an uncertain future as the country votes.

By Jeremy Bowen

In the early hours of a warm morning in June 1996, I drove along Route 1, the main highway to Jerusalem, after an evening at the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds. Supporters of the Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, were swaying to songs on an ear-splitting PA system. The hall had been booked for a victory party. But women who had dressed to celebrate sang along with tears running through their make-up. It looked as if their hero had lost. The radio in my car said that, with some votes left to count, Labor’s Shimon Peres would continue to be Israel’s prime minister.

Peres had assumed the leadership the previous November after a Jewish extremist, Yigal Amir, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. The killing followed a furious, hate-filled campaign by right-wingers to stop Rabin making the territorial concessions that were, and still are, a big part of any peace deal with the Palestinians.

When I woke on the morning after the election everything had changed. The exit polls were wrong. Some of my leftist Israeli friends grumbled that they had gone to bed with Peres and woken up with Netanyahu. Since that triumphant night nearly two decades ago, Netanyahu has had some bad times: his own right wing turned against him after he gave in to pressure from the Americans to make some small territorial concessions; after a humiliating defeat in 1999 Ariel Sharon eclipsed him as the leader of Likud. But since Netanyahu won a second term in 2009, he has worked hard, and successfully, to make sure that his right never outflanks him again.

Netanyahu called elections in December, two years early, after dismissing his main centrist partners in the ruling coalition, Tzipi Livni, leader of the Hatnuah party, and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”). He accused them of a “putsch”. They had been arguing about almost everything on the government’s agenda, including the state budget, Netanyahu’s plans for new settler homes in the occupied territories and a new nationality bill that sought to define Israel as a “Jewish state”. In fact, the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 does exactly that, announcing a country where Jews could be “masters of their own fate, like all other nations”. But Netanyahu argued it was time to restate a fundamental part of Israeli identity. His critics said that the bill violated the rights of the 20 per cent or so of Israelis who are not Jews and would damage chances of a renewed peace process.

The ultra-Orthodox parties will do deals with prime ministers who direct enough of the national budget towards their communities. However, on the right Netanyahu has a significant rival, Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) and minister of the economy. Bennett is 42, a multimillionaire who made his fortune in Israel’s hi-tech sector after a military career in Sayeret Matkal, the elite special forces unit. Two decades earlier, Netanyahu was also in the unit. During the election campaign Bennett has tried, a little crudely, to broaden the appeal of his party beyond its base in the religious Zionist movement, especially in the settlements. Bennett’s attempt to parachute a retired football star into the party’s list caused three days of uproar among activists before the would-be politician withdrew.

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At times in the past five years Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and head of Yisrael Beytenu (Israel, Our Home), looked a serious contender to become leader of the Israeli right. But he has been dogged by allegations of corruption in his personal dealings and in his party. Born in Moldova, Lieberman has been left relying on the loyalty of Israel’s large Russian community. He has used hawkish rhetoric to distract voters from repeated scandals. During the January exchange of fire with Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon, in which seven Hezbollah fighters and two Israeli soldiers were killed, Lieberman called for a “forcible and disproportionate response”.

Netanyahu, too, is also dealing with allegations of corruption. His wife, Sara, has been accused of pocketing money from the deposits on returned bottles that should have gone back into state coffers. In the last few weeks of campaigning, Netanyahu’s Likud has been trailing in the polls by a few points to the new centre-left alliance, Zionist Union, formed in December by the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the US Congress could give him a boost. Some Israeli commentators called it a priceless campaign ad. A couple of points in the polls are not nearly enough to make Netanyahu’s opponents feel secure. Netanyahu has been Israel’s most consistent vote-winner for almost 20 years.

Most Israelis do not share the obsession that foreign politicians, and reporters, have with the chances of peace with the Palestinians. The record of failure has made them as cynical about the prospects of a deal as the Palestinians are themselves. In the 1990s, the Israeli centre left argued that the best way ahead was through the negotiations, swapping land for peace. But the peace camp has never recovered from the shock of the second Palestinian intifada, from 2000 to 2005, and the suicide bomb campaign that killed civilians in Israeli towns and cities. Today there is neither a peace process nor any significant demand in Israel for one. The most recent attempt to revive it, led by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, ended in failure last year. The coming election on 17 March is not about how to make peace; the big issues are about the economy, especially rising prices for housing, fuel and food. Israelis, like anyone else, want politicians with policies that will make them better off.

However, like it or not, the future for Israelis, as for Palestinians, is dominated by their wars, past, present and to come. You can learn something about them on Route 1, the road I took that night in 1996 when it looked as if Shimon Peres had defeated Binyamin Netanyahu.

From the coast in Tel Aviv the highway runs across a wide fertile plain, past Ben Gurion Airport, until it starts to climb into the mountains, just past the great Trappist monastery at Latrun. Soon after the monastery, opposite a petrol station, is a stone building that used to be an inn where travellers stopped for the night; this was in the days of Ottoman rule, more than a century ago, when Tel Aviv was not built and the journey to Jerusalem from the port of Jaffa could take three days. The inn, or khan, stands at a place called the Gate of the Valley (Sha’ar HaGai in Hebrew, Bab el-Wad in Arabic). The modern highway, getting suddenly steeper, passes into what used to be a narrow rocky defile. These days the diggers are widening the road, yet again, but it is easy to imagine how hostile it must have once looked.

During the 1948 war that led to Israel’s independence, Jewish fighters used the road, with its steep, hostile sides, as they tried to run the blockade imposed by first Palestinians and then Jordanians on the Jewish sections of Jerusalem. Hulks of improvised armoured vehicles of the Jewish army have been left on the roadside along the modern highway as memorials.

The constant improvement of the highway, the widening and straightening, are designed to make it faster and safer and to improve Israel’s infrastructure. But it also fits into a more fundamental national project – to tie Jerusalem into coastal Israel. No Israeli wants a return to the days between 1948 and 1967, when the side of the holy city controlled by Israelis was at the end of a long, narrow cul-de-sac, a finger of territory with a road in it, surrounded by hostile people and a hostile land.

After independence, Israel flattened some Palestinian villages on the road to west Jerusalem so they would not be a threat again. But not all of them. In the 19 years after 1948, Israelis wanting to travel to their half of Jerusalem had to make a detour to avoid the hills around Latrun; during Israel’s independence war (the Palestinians’ Naqba, or “catastrophe”), Latrun had been held by Jordanian soldiers, trained and led by British officers, in a series of hard battles. Only during the war of 1967 – when an 18-year-old Binyamin Netanyahu joined the army – did Israeli soldiers take control of the area. The civilians who lived in Yalu, Imwas and Beit Nuba, three Palestinian villages around Latrun that had remained after independence, were expelled by Israeli troops; their homes were bulldozed. The area was turned into a national park and is now a popular place for Israeli family picnics. Traces of the former inhabitants of the area have been left as picturesque ruins among trees that have been planted by the Jewish National Fund of Canada: a few courses of limestone walls still standing; staircases that lead nowhere; banks of prickly pear cactus that used to be boundary fences.

In those years, under Jordanian control, the West Bank’s main city was Jerusalem. Well-off people from Amman, or Nablus, could drive down to the Mount of Olives to eat lunch at the Intercontinental Hotel that overlooked West Jerusalem and its mysterious population of Israelis. Beyond the walled Old City, controlled by Jordan, was a strip of no-man’s-land with strings of rusty barbed wire and war debris from 1948; beyond that, squarely in the view from the Mount of Olives, was the King David Hotel, where affluent Israelis could sit on the broad terrace and look back with the same curiosity at a world they could never visit.

All that ended with Israel’s crushing victory in the 1967 Six Day War. The Arabs’ worst defeat left Israel in control of Egypt’s Sinai Desert right up to the Suez Canal; the Palestinian Gaza Strip and West Bank, including all of Jerusalem; and the Golan Heights, a long escarpment in southern Syria. By Israeli design, Arab Jerusalem is now cut off from its natural hinterland.

Becoming an occupier changed Israel. For a while the new territories seemed to open up new possibilities, even peace. By a single vote days after the end of the war, the Israeli cabinet decided that the Golan and Sinai could be potential bargaining chips for peace with Egypt and Syria. But Jerusalem and the mountainous spine of the West Bank, known by the Israeli right as Judea and Samaria, were seen differently. The Jews think of them as their biblical homeland.

The victory in 1967 electrified Israelis. On the religious right it touched off a wave of messianism that drives the settlement movement and continues to break over Israeli politics; victory was a miracle that returned the lands of the Bible to the Jews. They could never be given up.

It is hard to think of any place where history matters more, is more politically charged, and has such an impact on global politics than Israel and the Palestinian territories. Twenty years ago the late Amos Elon, one of Israel’s most perceptive intellectuals, wrote that Jerusalem was a necrocracy, the only city where the dead were also given a vote. In 1997, just before the state of Israel celebrated its 50th anniversary, I asked two elderly Palestinian men in Jerusalem for their view of the past half-century. They shrugged. Israel was strong. But look back at history, one of them said. The Crusaders were strong, too, and controlled Jerusalem for more than a century. But, he said, we got rid of them.

Around the same time, I met a Jewish settler who was bringing up his family close to the town of Nablus, near the northern end of the West Bank. A recent immigrant from Argentina, he explained how the Palestinians who were working in the fields far below the hill where the settlement perched would be able to stay, as long as they accepted that they lived on Jewish land and followed Israel’s rules. I pointed out that the Palestinians had been there for centuries, and that only a few years earlier he had been in Buenos Aires. He told me I didn’t understand. For him, history was personal. “The Romans threw me out,” he said. “If they hadn’t done that to the Jews, I would never have left!”

In going back to biblical times to explain Israel’s modern history, the Argentinian immigrant was far from unique. The American author Lawrence Wright does the same in Thirteen Days in September, one of several recent books covering Israel’s post-1967 history. Wright’s book centres on the Camp David summit in 1978, during which President Jimmy Carter brokered the peace agreement between Menachem Begin of Israel, the first Likud prime minister, and Egypt’s then president, Anwar al-Sadat, that led ultimately to the removal of Israeli settlements in the Sinai. Wright’s book is much more than diplomatic history. It’s written with three timelines in mind – the 13 days of the summit, a history of the modern Middle East, and the continuing resonance of the Torah, the Bible and the Quran – and it succeeds triumphantly.

In Cursed Victory: a History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, Ahron Bregman, who chose to live in exile in London because of his opposition to Israel’s occupation of Arab territories, recalls the riots after the opening on 24 September 1996 of a tunnel that runs along the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (This was less than four months in to Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister.)

For most of its length it is less of a tunnel than a complex of underground vaults and ancient passages. But at the time, a false rumour began circulating among Palestinians that it would damage the foundations of the Aqsa Mosque, the most holy place for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. That was untrue; yet it was another small step in the campaign to make Jerusalem seem more like a city of the Jews and less Muslim and Christian. Seventy-nine Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed in the days of unrest that followed.

As the violence was starting, I drove to the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. When I stopped the car I could hear small arms fire crackling around the buildings. Uniformed Palestinian policemen and Israeli soldiers and border police were exchanging fire. Later in the day, Israeli helicopter gunships joined in the fight. It was clear that a line had been crossed. The year between the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 and these riots fatally damaged the Oslo peace process, which had started with secret talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. In his book, Bregman supplies an invaluable preface laying out international laws on occupation. Israel’s official position is that the territories are not occupied, but disputed.

His analysis is, I think, fair, and he concludes, correctly, that the “vast majority of legal experts” reject the Israeli argument that the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention do not apply to the territories. In other words, Israel broke international law when it settled its people on land occupied by war. His excellent, meticulously researched book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what occupation has done to Israel as well as to its neighbours.

Leslie Stein, who writes from a firmly Zionist perspective in Israel Since the Six Day War, believes the occupation has done Israel no favours. But he reserves his harshest criticism for the Palestinians. Stein uses the Nazi term Judenrein, which means “clean of Jews”, to describe the Palestinian position on the future of the Old City of Jerusalem. One reason why there is not much pressure within Israel for another round of peace talks is the belief that all the other attempts have failed because the Palestinians are not reconciled to the existence of Israel.

A contradiction exists in modern Israel; perhaps because without it life would be impossible, perhaps because the drive that created such a powerful state from scratch still has a long way to go. Everyone is aware of the conflict with the Palestinians, and of the turmoil elsewhere in the Arab world. Most Jewish Israelis have to do military service – it is even being extended to the ultra-Orthodox – and men do reserve duty into their thirties and forties.

Yet Israelis on the coast, especially in parts of Tel Aviv and the small, rich towns north of it, also talk about life in the bubble. What they mean is that it is possible, if you have money in your pocket, to half close your eyes, forget about the neighbours, to enjoy the cafés, the clubs, the sun and the beach. It may be short-termism, but it beats worrying. Of course, it becomes impossible when the smouldering conflicts with the Palestinians, Lebanese and others burst into flame.

Being bombed is terrifying, whichever side of the argument you are on. And yet Tel Aviv is a hedonistic, noisy Mediterranean city, inclined often to look out across the sea towards Europe. In that sense, it reminds me of parts of Beirut, not all that far up the coast, where the young and relatively affluent are just as pleasure-seeking and just as capable of protecting themselves against the looming future by ignoring it.

Viewed this way, it is understandable that the cost of living is a bigger talking point in the run-up to this month’s election than the absence of peace with the Palestinians – an issue that will shape the future of the country. Shaking up an economy that has some highly successful sectors is easy to debate. But the national upheaval required to reverse almost 50 years of settlement of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is hard for many Israelis to imagine.

Another topic of growing political debate is Israel’s increasing international isolation. Netanyahu is a regular visitor to Washington, DC at this time of the year for the annual policy conference of Aipac, the biggest and most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in the US. This year, he accepted an invitation from the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, to address a joint session of Congress. However, Boehner and Netanyahu did not run the invitation past the Oval Office first. The White House called it a breach of protocol. Boehner said that no one in the world is better able than Netanyahu to talk about “the threat that the Iranians pose, not just to the Middle East and to Israel, our longest ally, but to the entire world”.

The long-running negotiations on Iran’s nuclear plans are at a crucial and delicate moment. Some Republicans in Congress want to pass additional sanctions against Iran. Hardliners in Washington could play into the hands of those in Tehran; the two groups are as viscerally opposed to a deal as they are to each other.

Netanyahu’s speech to the Congress on 3 March was controversial; he attacked the Obama administration’s Iran policy, calling the deal that is being negotiated for the Iranian nuclear programme bad and dangerous, as it would leave Iran with its nuclear enrichment facilities intact. Afterwards President Obama, who refused to meet Netanyahu while he was in Washington, looked irritated as he suggested that people wait to see what the deal is when and if it is signed. The White House has reiterated that under no circumstances would the United States allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. Netanyahu’s bet ahead of the election seemed to be that any collateral damage caused to his relationship with Obama was worth the chance to present himself, once again, as the man who can be trusted most with Israel’s security.

The prime minister’s campaign has released a TV advertisement in which Netanyahu arrives at a delighted thirtysomething couple’s house as their surprise babysitter, or, as he calls himself, the Bibi-sitter (his nickname is Bibi). When the couple return home, Bibi is on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket and eating popcorn.

“Shalom,” they say, which means peace as well as hello. “Not at any price,” he tells them. Who would you want looking after your kids? he asks. “Me, or Tzipi and Bougie?” Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, the leader of the Labor Party, and Tzipi Livni, sacked by Netanyahu as justice minister in the row that precipitated the election, share the leadership of the new centre-left alliance, Zionist Union.

One of their critical messages is that Netanyahu is alienating Israel’s allies, especially the United States.

Part of Israel’s isolation is self-inflicted; part of it is the result of the Palestinians’ new strategy to strengthen their credentials as an independent state by joining inter­national institutions. At the Security Council the Americans have vetoed Palestinian attempts to join the United Nations as a full member. But the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine to the status of non-member observer state, which has meant that it has joined world bodies, including the International Criminal Court. The ICC, at the request of the Palestinians, has started preliminary investigation into allegations of Israeli war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza since June 2014.

Herzog’s Labor is trying to make isolation an electoral issue; the war crimes investigation, he said in October, was a “failure by Netanyahu . . . If we had international support, this would not have happened.” Deepening Israel’s isolation is the objective of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. Israeli politicians no longer see it as a fringe problem.

No one who is interested in the impact of the Middle East on the rest of the world should focus solely on the turmoil in the Arab countries. The politics of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are evolving, but the conflict remains as poisonous as ever. The lesson of history is that when it is left to fester, it becomes unstable and then explodes.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He is the author of “Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East” (Simon & Schuster)

He appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 19 April, in an event on reporting the Middle East

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