On the eve of the second Israeli election of 2019, there was no shortage of apocalyptic rhetoric about the potential consequences of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s re-election. From the New York Times’ editorial column to The Forward’s opinion pages, we once again heard the same stale rhetoric about how another Likud-led government would mark the decline and fall of Israeli democracy and cause the final collapse of any hope for peace with the Palestinians.
That last point of view was best articulated by Washington Post editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl, who, like many liberal pundits, believes that Netanyahu’s promise to apply Israeli law to West Bank settlements and to hold onto the Jordan Valley forever ensures that peace will never be possible with the Palestinians.
Let’s leave aside the likelihood that Netanyahu statements were just campaign rhetoric that won’t be turned into action. Israeli law already applies to the settlements, and annexation, even of the Area C territory where Jewish communities are located, is still unlikely. As for the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu’s chief rival – the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz – has said that his position on the issue is no different than that of the Likud leader. What many outside observers still fail to understand is the broad consensus among Israelis on security issues and the peace process. That consensus holds that the Palestinians have no real interest in peace and that in the absence of a peace partner, territorial concessions wouldn’t be so much unwise as insane.
That’s why all the talk about Israel’s latest election deciding the future of the peace process isn’t just wrong but ignores the fact that this question was actually determined in an election held 14 years ago.
By that I refer to the vote that took place on Jan. 9, 2005 when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, succeeding Yasser Arafat. Abbas, leader of Arafat’s Fatah party and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, won with 62% of the vote. That wasn’t very impressive when you consider that his Hamas rivals refused to run in an election they not unreasonably believed was fixed, and that, according to independent Palestinian researchers, 94% of the reportage on the election in the Palestinian media was devoted to laudatory coverage of Abbas.
The election was largely the result of American pressure on both the Palestinians and the Israeli government, then led by Ariel Sharon. President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team had become convinced that the establishment of Palestinian democracy was the necessary prerequisite to peace.
Bush had rightly rejected Arafat as an unreconstructed terrorist. But although Abbas wore a suit rather than Arafat’s combat fatigues, he was no more interested or capable of ending the conflict with Israel than his predecessor.
Though Hamas branded him as a weakling, Abbas had no intention of making peace. The Islamist terror group won a Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and then organised a bloody coup in 2007 that enabled it to seize power in Gaza.
So it was little surprise that when it came time for another Palestinian election, Abbas merely stayed in office without holding another vote. Palestinian democracy was a case of one man, one vote, one time. There has never been another election for Palestinian president in either the West Bank or Hamas-controlled Gaza; Abbas is currently serving in the 15th year of the four-year term to which he had been elected.
Had the Palestinians elected a person willing or capable of making peace, they would have grabbed then-Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, as well a share of Jerusalem. Instead, as Arafat did in 2000 and 2001, Abbas said no. He continued to say no when the Obama Administration revived negotiations and Netanyahu expressed a willingness to talk about the future of the West Bank. And he continues, to this day, to refuse to recognise the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn.
It was the Palestinian elections of 2005 and 2006, as well as the one that wasn’t held in 2009, which made it clear that peace with Israel was impossible until a sea change in their culture produced a leadership that would be serious about peace. Should such a leadership ever emerge, they will, no doubt, find willing Israeli partners.
For now, Israelis understand that the Palestinians have already decided against peace – no matter what Netanyahu, Gantz or any other potential prime minister will or won’t do.