Peace Politics

Israel's Political Process Sabotages Peace Efforts, But There Is A Constituency For Peace

The way Israel's government is formed has more to do with why peace seems so far away than we typically acknowledge.

Last week, as 26 newly released Palestinian prisoners made their way home from Israeli jails, observers waited for the other shoe to drop. And drop it did: shortly after the release, the Israeli government announced the construction of 5,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The world has been conditioned to expect such brazen sabotage. As Lara Friedman has previously reported here in Open Zion, the Netanyahu administration has repeatedly timed settlement construction to coincide with the progress of an increasingly mislabeled “peace process.” In March 2010, right after the Palestinian leadership agreed to indirect talks, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo. Another 1,500 settlement units were approved in May 2011, on the eve of President Obama's major Middle East speech and Netanyahu's trip to Washington. In 2012, shortly after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed his commitment to peace on Israeli television, the government announced 1,200 new homes in the West Bank. And now this latest bit of transparent subversion: the prisoner release was meant as a show of good faith amidst peace negotiations in Washington. Obviously, its utility in that regard has now been nullified.

Several explanations have been proffered for this damaging behavior. A common interpretation is that settlement construction is Netanyahu's attempt to bolster his image with his core constituency, which is solidly right wing. The latest sabotage was evidently the product of a backroom deal between Bibi and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who would allow the prisoner release only if connected with new construction. The lead Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, clearly believes that Netanyahu is intent on consciously undermining the peace process.

There is likely some truth to all of these accounts. But the tendency to view Israel as monolithic—reflected, unavoidably, even in the language I've used above—belies an important truth: it is Israel's political system, more than any single cultural or political factor, that has served, time and again, to hobble efforts for peace.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy in which legislators are elected using a system called party-list proportional representation: citizens vote for parties instead of people, and a party that gets, say, 20 percent of the vote gets 20 percent of the seats in the Knesset. Since legislation is passed in the Knesset by a simple majority and it's exceedingly rare for a single party to garner more than 50 percent of the vote, Israel's is a system that encourages the formation of coalition governments.

The current ruling coalition, led by the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance, controls 68 seats, or just over 56 percent of the current Knesset. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who needs 60 votes to get anything done, is in a precarious legislative position: Naftali Bennett can control the government's agenda by threatening to withhold Jewish Home's 12 votes. This is what makes Bennett, whose party won just over 9 percent of the vote in the 2013 elections, able to singlehandedly hamstring peace negotiations by demanding settlement building.

After the 2009 elections, Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister even though Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party had garnered a plurality of votes. Netanyahu won the day because only he was able to form a ruling coalition: Israel's 32nd government was thus comprised of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Labor, and Habayit Hayehudi—with the exception of Labor, all right-wing parties.

This is the government that oversaw each of the instances of sabotage mentioned above. What's fascinating about this circumstance is while the broader right-wing's numerical majority made a right-wing coalition possible, left-wing or Arab parties won around 45 percent of the vote. The image of Israel as a unitary, inflexibly anti-peace body is not borne out by the legislative facts.

Perhaps even more heartening is the current situation. Of the twelve parties currently represented in the Knesset, eight hold positions unequivocally advocating two states for two peoples. These eight—the three Arab parties, Yesh Atid, Hatnuah and the center-left coalition comprising Labor, Meretz and Kadima—together control 59 seats. That's precisely two less than they would need to constitute a majority in the Knesset.

Consider: in 2013, just about half of Israelis voted for parties that openly advocate the creation of a Palestinian state. Polling data reveals a strong majority of Israelis support a two-state solution but that many express pessimism about its feasibility.

It's common to view a nominal commitment to a Palestinian state as a public relations tactic. But if Israel's parliamentary democracy has one strength, it's that it saves Israelis from being single-issue voters: since small parties can wield great power, and voters can typically find one party amidst dozens that conforms closely to their views, parties have diminished incentive to advocate for views they have no intention of pursuing. Support for peace is real, substantial and, at least lately, increasing. That Israelis are pessimistic about its actual manifestation seems hardly to be represented in their democratic participation.

Man-made obstacles to peace, like the 5,000 new Jewish housing units that will soon be erected east of the Green Line, are not the product of an Israel that stands united against the Palestinians. They are the consequences of a political system that, up to now, has favored the country's least progressive elements. There is hope yet.