Elections In Israel

Centrist Arrogance in Ariel

Peter Beinart on how Israeli politician Yair Lapid laid down obstacles to peace in his opening campaign speech.

It’s not the right-wingers who really depress me this Israeli election season. It’s the centrists. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu’s now-ratified merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu may extinguish the last traces of the liberal Revisionism that once helped define the Likud. But it was dying anyway. With noble exceptions like Reuven Rivlin, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, most Likudniks had already embraced Lieberman’s efforts to disenfranchise Israel’s Palestinian citizens and limit leftist criticism of the state. Indeed, since Lieberman himself served as director-general during Netanyahu’s first prime ministership, the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger is really more of a reunification than the creation of something genuinely new.

What’s more depressing is the behavior of Israel’s supposed moderates. In her zeal to make the upcoming election a referendum on neo-liberal economics, Labor Party head Shelley Yachimovich largely pretends that the Palestinians don’t exist. And then there’s Yair Lapid, the charismatic former actor and talk show host, who is seeking to woo the secular cosmopolitans of Tel Aviv.

Yesterday Lapid launched his campaign in, of all places, the settlement of Ariel. Why Ariel? Because, according to Lapid, “there exists no map in which Ariel isn't a part of the State of Israel.” Evidently Lapid is unfamiliar with the 2003 Geneva Agreement, the only accord signed by former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, which calls for Ariel’s evacuation. It does so because Ariel stretches thirteen miles into the West Bank, severely impeding access between northern Palestinian cities like Qalqilya and Tulkarem and the rest of a supposed Palestinian state. Indeed, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami himself has conceded, “There is no doubt that settlements like… Ariel make the problem of contiguity, the question of contiguity… of the Palestinian state something that is very, very difficult to imagine.” That’s why, according to Open Zion columnist Bernard Avishai, Ariel was a key sticking point in the 2008 negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas.

Lapid also vowed that “Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control and won’t be divided,” even though Olmert, and Ehud Barak before him, both conceded a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem during peace negotiations. To be fair, it’s understandable that Lapid might not want to lay out his most expansive vision of peace in the opening gambit of his campaign. Still, no one forced him to launch his campaign in Ariel, or to insist upon preconditions that would make a two-state agreement impossible.

American Jews often talk despairingly—and sometimes accurately—about the problems of Palestinian political culture. But watching a supposed moderate like Lapid brazenly declare that everyone knows Ariel will remain inside Israel when, in fact, even the most pliable Palestinians know no such thing, it’s hard not to conclude that Israeli political culture has its problems too. And that arrogance is near the top of the list.