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Only the People of the United States Can End Israel’s Occupation

Many progressives breathed a sigh of relief when last month’s Israeli elections set the stage for a centrist coalition and not a far-right one. Yet peace will remain out of reach until the American people pressure the Obama Administration to end Israeli impunity.
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Knesset

The Kadima Party, which was considered right-wing at the time of its founding in 2005, is expected to be included in the center-left coalition. Photo by Tzipi Livni.

Last month’s elections in Israel demonstrated that the Israeli electorate’s shift to the right is not inexorable. But they are unlikely to bring peace any closer by themselves.

Centrist parties—particularly a new secular group known as Yesh Atid, which won a surprising second place—did better than expected, while the right-wing Likud Bloc of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu lost seats. However, Netanyahu—who has made clear his unwillingness to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, and who has escalated the illegal colonization of occupied East Jerusalem and other places in the West Bank—will likely remain prime minister.

If Israelis know that U.S. support will be forthcoming whether they pursue peace or not, they are likely to continue supporting the occupation of the West Bank.

The good news is that Netanyahu will need to put together a coalition government with more centrist parties, instead of with far-right and fundamentalist parties, as observers had expected. This makes war with Iran and other provocative actions by the Israeli government less likely.

Exit polls indicate that Israelis were primarily interested in domestic issues, especially the declining fortunes of the country’s middle class, which is struggling with stagnant wages, rising housing costs, and reckless privatization that has made a handful of Israelis very wealthy at the expense of the majority. In the decades since the government of the social-democratic Labor Party, Israel has gone from being one of the most egalitarian countries in the world to one of the most unequal, at least among advanced industrialized countries. A series of right-wing governments have shredded the country’s once-vaunted social welfare system, and exciting socialist initiatives like the kibbutz movement have faded. However, the Israeli people have engaged in massive protests against the growing economic injustice, including the first general strike in more than a generation, as well as demonstrations and occupations involving tens of thousands, easily eclipsing Occupy Wall Street in their numbers.

However, left-wing parties did not seem able to harness the energy of this movement, and progressives had to settle for the prospect that the new governing coalition will likely emerge from the center-right rather than extreme right and fundamentalist parties. Indeed, as an indication of how far to the right Israeli politics have gone, the Kadima Party, founded in 2005 by former right-wing prime minister and war criminal Ariel Sharon, is now considered part of the “center-left” bloc.

While Israeli politics has shifted to a more hardline position, the Palestine Liberation Organization has become more moderate. The PLO-led Palestine Authority, now recognized as a state by the United Nations, is solidly under moderate and pragmatic leadership, and has agreed to a peace settlement along the lines of the one proposed by President Bill Clinton in December 2000—a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including Arab-populated parts of East Jerusalem, with some limited territorial swaps to allow Israel to keep most of its settlements.

The best hope for peace will have to come from the U.S. pressuring Israel to end its unjust policies toward the Palestinians.

This would leave Israel with 78 percent of historical Palestine and the Palestinians with 22 percent. Netanyahu, however, insists this is too much and instead supports only limited Palestinian autonomy over a series of tiny non-contiguous cantons in parts of the West Bank, with Israel effectively annexing the rest of the occupied territory. President Barack Obama has called for mutual compromise between these two positions.

Like citizens of other countries, Israelis are divided between left, right, and center. Those on the left—for either principled or pragmatic reasons—recognize the need for their government to make the necessary territorial compromises for peace. Those on the right—for either religious or nationalist reasons—are unwilling to do so.

The majority of Israelis remain in the middle. They are willing to accept these necessary compromises, but only if they know there will be negative consequences for doing otherwise, such as losing the more than $3 billion in annual U.S. aid or the assurance that the U.S. will veto U.N. Security Council resolutions that challenge the Israeli occupation. A threatened suspension of the U.S. economic largesse might finally force more Israelis to make the connection between the heavily-subsidized settlement housing in the West Bank and the lack of affordable housing within Israel itself, or the huge financial burden of the continued occupation with the cutbacks in domestic spending.

Conversely, if Israelis know that U.S. support will be forthcoming regardless, this key swing constituency is likely to continue backing parties that support the occupation and colonization of the West Bank.

As a result, the best hope for peace will have to come from the United States pressuring Israel to end its unjust, illegal, and ultimately self-destructive policies toward the Palestinians. And that will only happen if the American people are willing to pressure the Obama administration to do so.


Stephen Zunes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Stephen is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.

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