Israel votes: Netanyahu's last-ditch vow to his base – a dead peace process

Politicians make many campaign promises they don't intend to deliver on. But Netanyahu's promise Monday to never agree to a Palestinian state fits his record.

Olivier Fitoussi/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks as he visits a construction site in Har Homa, east Jerusalem, Monday March 16, 2015, a day ahead of legislative elections. Netanyahu is seeking his fourth term as prime minister.

With Israel's final pre-election polls pointing to a difficult road for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stay in power, he spent his final days on the campaign trail throwing red meat to his base.

Pro-Likud robocalls warned Israeli voters that only Mr. Netanyahu has the strength to stand up to "Hussein Obama." Campaign ads compared Israeli dock workers and regulators to Hamas militants and called his opponents tools of shadowy foreign financiers (a strange charge given his own close ties to US casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson).

But on Monday the prime minister delivered his show stopper: Vote for me and I'll kill what's left of the peace process stone dead.

Though not his precise words, that was their meaning. And this is one campaign promise that voters could probably take to the bank. If that promise helps tip the electoral balance in his favor, it would mean the road to a Palestinian state that was at the heart of the Oslo Accords signed over 20 years ago has come to a dead end.

"I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory, gives territory away to radical Islamic attacks against Israel," he told NRG, a pro-settler news website owned by Mr. Adelson.

He warned in the interview that if the more dovish Zionist Union headed by Isaac Herzog won, the new government would "do the bidding" of the international community. That was code for freezing settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and focusing on a Palestinian peace deal drawn on the borders that prevailed before 1967's Arab-Israeli war – all leading to the creation of a "Hamastan" in Jerusalem.

Without a Palestinian state and Israel's evacuation of at least some of the settlements it has built on land captured in 1967, what's left of the so-called peace process becomes a farce. There simply isn't that much more to talk about.

To be sure, it's a somewhat academic question at this point. There has been no process to speak of for years, US Secretary of State John Kerry's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. When it was announced that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was stepping down from his role as the so-called Quartet's special envoy on Middle East peace – after 8 years on the job – it was the first he'd been heard from on the issue in quite some time.

Netanyahu's reversal

While spending most of his tenure talking about "transformational change" for Palestinians through investment promotion, Mr. Blair was also tending to his growing consulting empire, whose clients include companies like JPMorgan Chase and governments like Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi. Middle East peace, particularly the creation of the Palestinian state that the "Quartet" – the UN, EU, US and Russia – says is key, steadily receded from view.

But at least lip service was paid to that ultimate goal by all concerned – including Netanyahu. In 2009, in a speech following President Barack Obama's Cairo address, in which the then-new US leader spoke of a new chapter for the Palestinians, Netanyahu said as long as there were strong US security guarantees for Israel and a recognition of the Jewish state by the Palestinian Authority that "we will be ready ... to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside a Jewish state."

Almost six years on, he has repudiated that position.

It was no mistake that one of his last campaign stops Monday was in Har Homa, a Jewish settlement of 20,000 people wedged between Jerusalem and the ancient Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Netanyahu approved construction work on Har Homa during his first term as prime minister, in 1997. On Monday he confirmed what has long been suspected – that settlements like Har Homa were established to make any Palestinian claims on parts of Jerusalem impossible.

"We will preserve Jerusalem's unity in all its parts," he told voters. "We will continue to build and fortify Jerusalem so that its division won't be possible and it will stay united forever."

The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas views East Jerusalem as its future capital, and that portion of the city is considered occupied by Israel under international law.

Early turnout is brisk

Since the late 1990s a network of concrete walls, checkpoints, Israeli-only roads, and settlements in the West Bank has hemmed in and divided Palestinian population centers, effectively chopping into pieces the territory that was meant to be the heartland of a Palestinian state. Integrating them into something resembling a working economic and political whole would require settlement concessions. And Netanyahu has now promised he will never make those concessions. 

Turnout in voting Tuesday has been brisk. Haaretz reports that about 14 percent of eligible Israelis had voted by 10 AM local time, a clip 20 percent faster than in the country's two previous elections. The final polls projected Likud slipping. Israel's Channel 2 had Likud down to 20 seats in its final poll on Friday, with the Zionist Union projected at 24.

Yet even if Herzog's party wins more seats, Netanyahu will still have a path to power. Smaller right-wing and religious parties could pull enough seats to form a governing coalition – with Netanyahu once again at the head of the table.

A likely partner for Netanyahu is Naftali Bennett, head of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party. Indeed, Netanyahu said his first call – after the election results are in – would be to Mr. Bennett. His party favors formal annexation of the major settlement blocks in the West Bank's "Area C" and has compared the creation of a Palestinian state to "suicide" for Israel. Area C covers about 60 percent of the West Bank, and intersperses the Palestinian towns and cities. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to