Let us be clear. It isn’t that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to win an upset re-election victory in Israel’s parliamentary elections last week that spells the definitive end of the Middle East peace process; it’s the manner in which he did so.
With the last opinion polls before the election showing him decisively losing ground to the centre-left Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu went all in, gambling everything politically on one last throw of the dice. Throwing all caution to the wind, he tacked decisively to the right, clearly stating that, if he was re-elected, there simply would not be a Palestinian state on his watch.
This out-of-the-blue statement did the trick, stopping defections on Israel’s right to smaller, and often more absolutist, factions than the Prime Minister’s Likud Party. Wavering right-wing voters returned to Netanyahu in droves, propelling him to a stunningly easy victory. Likud had seemed to be behind the Zionist Union by three or four seats; following his repudiation of the Palestinians, Netanyahu went on to win easily, controlling 30 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, with the Zionist Union far behind with 24. Whatever one thinks of it as a policy, saying he had given up on the peace process paid huge political dividends for the Prime Minister.
Netanyahu has subsequently appeared to backtrack, claiming that he had not intended to reverse his prior endorsement of a two-state solution. But in reality, he merely refined his pre-election declaration, saying that there is no chance of sustainable peace unless the circumstances change. Here the Prime Minister has a point. The basic trade behind decades of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks is simple enough: Land for Peace. That is, Israel would only make the territorial concessions necessary for the Palestinians to have a functioning state if genuine peace would result.
This has not been on the cards for years for one basic reason. With the rise of the more radical Hamas in the Gaza Strip competing against West Bank-based Fatah, the Palestinians have become a two-headed political monster. Even if it were achievable, peace with Fatah would not get the Israelis what they want: harmony with the Palestinians as a whole. Why on earth should Israel make wrenching concessions over land to Fatah if, at the end of the day, they did not achieve their pre-eminent negotiating goal? Bottom line, the Palestinians have been either unable (as in the case of Fatah) or unwilling (as in the case of Hamas) to give Israel the concessions it needed to politically make the diplomatic process work.
Moreover, the Prime Minister’s electoral gambit – dramatically ruling out any Palestinian state while he remains in office – only worked because a significant segment of Israeli opinion did not believe such a deal was worth it on its merits. Security conditions within Israel have greatly improved, as Palestinian violence against Israelis in-country has become rare. Given that, and given the unrealistic hope that the Palestinians could actually deliver on peace, many Israelis – particularly on the right – have soured on the whole unending and unedifying process itself.
While in my view the entire process – for the reasons stated above – has been objectively dead in policy terms for quite some time, this is still a fateful moment. Whatever backtracking Netanyahu does, by effectively announcing his government’s withdrawal from the peace process, everyone with eyes to see will make adjustments to this diplomatic sea change; the Middle East is about to enter another era, one quite possibly even more destabilised than before.
For there will be a reckoning to the Prime Minister’s stating the obvious. Without a state of their own as the ultimate goal, the Palestinians will become more radicalised, as they have almost nothing left to lose. In a region in utter chaos, this has to be another nail in the coffin of restoring stability.
Far worse, from a Palestinian point of view, is not merely Netanyahu’s disavowal of the peace process; it’s that Israeli citizens in great numbers agreed with him. The illusion that the Palestinian dream of self-determination might soon be realised has been exposed as a cruel pipedream. A more radical Palestinian leadership is the likely result, which in turn makes genuine peace an ever more distant prospect.
Netanyahu’s rupture from the administration of Barack Obama is also now complete. Over the two most important strategic issues in the region – the peace process and the Iran nuclear talks – Washington and Israel find themselves at loggerheads. Until now, strong support for Israel has been the default position of the Democratic and Republican parties. Whether this remains so in the medium term is now open to question.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. He is president of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy, and available for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com