Open Zion

06.13.13

No Peace With the Palestinians, No Peace Inside the Israeli Coalition

The one area of consensus during last night's debate at Hebrew University was that no one in the coalition is happy with Benjamin Netanyahu's status quo. Not Eitan Cabel of Labor, who sits in the opposition; not Yoni Shetbon from Jewish Home, or Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid, who sit in the coalition; and certainly not the newlywed Tzipi Hotovely, a member of Netanyahu's very own Likud-Beiteinu. These members of parliament agree with the Kerry line: the Netanhyahu status quo is unsustainable, and they agree something must be done about it. But that's where the agreement ends and the mixed messages of the 19th Knesset coalition begin. Last night's debate, organized by Molad: the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy (where I work) and co-sponsored by Labor and Likud student groups, demonstrated why it's hard to envision how such a fragmented coalition might accomplish anything at all.

The topic of conversation was meant to be the Arab Peace Initiative, and a good chunk of the evening was, in fact, dedicated to the topic. But the underlying conversation, the conversation that kept breaking through the surface, was the basic question that's bedeviled Israeli politics since 1967: what to do about the occupied Palestinian territories.

On that question, the debate between Tzipi Hotovely and Ofer Shelah was undoubtedly the most riveting. Hotovely, as rhetorically powerful and deeply ideological as ever, laid out her four options for the territories at the start. First, the two state solution, which she pegged to the left. This meant, she said, a binational state based on the API's provision for the right of return of Palestinian refugees; in other words, the unacceptable end of the Jewish state. Second, the status quo, which she compared to Akamol (an Israeli version of Tylenol): a quick but temporary fix. And finally, her solution: the gradual annexation of the West Bank, beginning with Area C, in which Israel would give Palestinians full citizenship ("instead of five Ahmad Tibis [in the Knesset], we will have some more"), and simultaneously—yes—recruit one million Jews from the Diaspora to live in Israel, presumably to balance to the demographic threat enfranchising Palestinians would bring.

This last element of Hotovely's plan—importing American Jewish demography—sounds fairly deluded to an American Jewish ear and deserves a quick digression: The Nefesh b'Nefesh website will tell you that in the last 10 years, some 30,000 Americans have made Aliya, or emigrated to Israel. That's 3 percent of one millionr Hotovely wants to come in the next ten years. And yet somehow Hotovely thinks Jews will begin to come in droves. Why? She has the answer: they already are, on Birthright trips. On this point the moderator, a well-known TV personality and journalist who recently made a film about Birthright, quizzically argued back: "That's not what Adelson said when I sat with him." In his rebuttal later, Ofer Shelah asked Hotovely what her plan was once all the American Jews moved to Israel; where would her lobbyists come from, he asked. 

To have the conversation focus on American Jews—an absent body and (apparently) mere theoretical concept—take hold of a political discussion between Knesset members seemed bizarre and, moreover, uncomfortable. American Jews are not Tzipi Hotovely's constituency. They did not vote her into office (nor likely would they). What right has she to use them for her own demographic wandwaving?

The students, at least, were less interested in American Jewry and more interested in Israeli Jewry. At some point, a student clearly affiliated with the Likud sector of the audience, asked the progressive MKs a galling question: "What is our interest in making peace now?" And before any of the MKs could answer, another student almost leapt out of his seat screaming, "The occupation corrupts!"—a common mantra of the Israeli left. It was then that Ofer Shelah, a former paratrooper who lost an eye in the first Lebanon War and made his career as a journalist, made his case.

"Come on, I'll tell you how the occupation corrupts," Shelah said. And he did, giving specifics and eventually arguing that a "political settlement with the Palestinians is [Israel's] top interest." It was a rousing speech, garnering momentous applause, about what the occupation is doing to Israel and why a Palestinian state is so necessary—for Israel. He spoke of settlements as a "barrier to peace," about the South African direction Israel is headed and how Israel's international standing continues to sink. "We'll always have Micronesia," he lamented, "but we've gotten to the point where at the U.N. vote only nine countries vote with us. The world has informed us that they're sick and tired of our situation as an occupying country."

The Israeli coalition's schizophrenia has been a hot topic since the government formed in January. Danny Danon's "slipto the Times of Israel was merely the latest intra-party clash. But Yair Lapid can be just as bad. In the New York Times earlier this year, he described the two-state solution as "crucial" and expressed a desire for negotiations. And yet would not back down from his stance for an "undivided Jerusalem," nor would he change settlement policy; both are fundamental Palestinian demands for talks. These kinds of tensions, too, may not break up the coalition, but they very well may prevent it from getting anything done.