What’s at stake in Israel’s elections?

by Jamie

First published: 13 February, 2015 | Category: International

Roger Cohen, America's Jonathan Freedland, claims that ‘the fundamental issue’ in Israel’s forthcoming election is ‘whether Israel can return to the Zionism of the founders of the modern state and seek in good faith a two-state outcome’ or whether it will instead pursue ‘a familiar status quo comprised of periodic war’ in the service of a ‘Greater Israel’.[1]

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he says, promises the latter scenario; Labour’s Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, running a joint ticket as the ‘Zionist Union’, offer hope for the former.

Without wishing to discount Cohen’s evidence for this story (‘Livni told me’), the Zionist Union’s positions on a settlement with the Palestinians merit closer scrutiny. What does the self-proclaimed alternative to Netanyahu substantively amount to?

Herzog wants the settlement blocs of ‘Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim’ to ‘be part of Israel for ever’[2] and ‘no right of return for the Palestinians to Israel in any way’. 

Livni wants Israel’s permanent annexation of the major settlement blocs, and has described the route of the Wall—which cuts deep into the occupied West Bank to encompass the settlement blocs, in violation of international law—as Israel’s ‘future border’.

Israel’s annexation of the major settlement blocs is incompatible with the international consensus two-state settlement based on international law, and almost certainly with a viable Palestinian state. Livni is well aware of this. As the sometime Justice Minister informed Palestinian negotiators in 2007, ‘I am a lawyer... but I am against law—international law in particular’. The 2008 Annapolis talks, for which Livni represented Israel, broke down over precisely this issue: whereas the Palestinians were willing to compromise on individual settlements, presenting a map (p. 13) that allowed Israel to annex more than 60% of its settlers, they rejected Israel’s annexation of the settlement blocs as incompatible with viable statehood.[3] Cohen’s juxtaposition of a dovish Zionist Union to a rejectionist Netanyahu conflates the realisation of a two-state settlement with its decisive defeat.[4]


So understood, the real difference between Netanyahu and his opposition becomes clear. Last year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict by extracting the acquiescence of an unprecedentedly weak Palestinian Authority to Israel’s long-standing terms of settlement. These terms—Israel’s annexation of the major blocs; no right of return—are Livni and Herzog’s positions. Despite securing a Palestinian signature, Kerry’s initiative failed when Netanyahu rejected his country’s own long-standing demands as insufficient. 

Livni and Herzog—together with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman—comprise the pro-Kerry bloc in Israeli politics. Netanyahu and forces to his right make up the anti-Kerry bloc.[5] United in opposition to the two-state solution, the camps divide over the desirability of any agreement, period. Where Netanyahu is content to maintain the status quo de facto, Livni and Herzog desire its formalisation, for the sake of which they are willing to abandon isolated settlements east of the Wall.

Gideon Levy warns that a Livni-Herzog government would merely package Netanyahu’s rejectionism less offensively, reducing the diplomatic costs of Israel’s occupation while entrenching it in fact. ‘This Israeli peace party would intoxicate the world, which in its despair would again be enticed’. Today’s stinging Ha’aretz editorial dismisses the Zionist Union as a ‘poor imitation’ of Likud. There is no reason to expect from such a government a real alternative to what Cohen describes as the ‘familiar status quo comprised of periodic war’. It was Tzipi Livni who, following Israel’s 2008-9 massacre of 1,400 people in Gaza, boasted that ‘Israel demonstrated real hooliganism… which I demanded’. 

But there is a deeper danger. There are signs that the U.S. and European governments are manoeuvring to resume final status negotiations in the event of a Livni and Herzog victory.[6] Kerry’s success is the two-state settlement’s demise. Paradoxically, it was Netanyahu’s extreme rejectionism which last year kept the hope of a viable Palestinian state alive. Should the pro-Kerry bloc assume power in Israel, the last obstacle to the imposition of a settlement on U.S.-Israeli terms will have been removed.

Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project and writes an Israel-Palestine blog.



[1] This may be the ‘fundamental issue’ for Roger Cohen but the Israeli electorate reportedly has other priorities. I will leave aside Cohen’s rendering of the history of Zionism. Britain's Jonathan Freedland, Jonathan Freedland, also thinks that ‘[the] end of the Bibi era would be a clear boost for those desperate for change in the apparently never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict… Banishing Bibi could unlock all sorts of possibilities’. His evidence is equally compelling (‘My conversations’).


MR. GOLDBERG: You are Prime Minister — what is your settlement policy? 

MR. HERZOG: My settlement policy first and foremost is based on the famous [Clinton] parameters. I believe in the blocs. (p. 20) 

The Clinton parameters envisioned Israel’s annexation of 80% of its settlers, in the settlement blocs. The Palestinians rejected this as incompatible with a viable Palestinian state.

[3] Credit to Norman G. Finkelstein for recognising the significance of the Palestinian map, and for the Livni quote.

[4] Others, who should know better, make the same mistake.

[5] They can be sub-divided into advocates for a formalised ‘Greater Israel’ and those who are satisfied with the status quo. It also bears noting that whereas opposition to Kerry’s plan from the likes of Naftali Bennett may be ideological, Netanyahu’s rejection was by most accounts motivated by a desire to remain in power.

[6] Cf. Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Tobias Ellwood: ‘We are picking up the agenda that was arrived at in April with John Kerry’ (October 2014); EU Foreign Affairs Vice-President Federica Mogherini: ‘I am in constant contact with John Kerry, who is renewing his commitment to reopen the way for negotiations’ (November 2014); Elisabeth Guigou, president of the French National Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee: ‘Il semble que le secrétaire d’Etat américain, John Kerry, ait l’intention d’effectuer une nouvelle tentative de négociations’ (November 2014).

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