Israelis who vote in their country’s parliamentary election on Tuesday are unlikely to complain about a lack of choice. A ballot that lists 27 political parties has something for just about everyone. In the end about half the parties will probably get enough votes to win representation in the legislature. But if history is a guide, two-thirds or more of the Knesset’s 120 seats will be split between just two parties, Likud and the Labor Alignment, with both falling well short of achieving a majority. The question then is what kind of governing coalition can be put together.
If the polls are right, Israel’s political future could well end up looking a lot like its present in terms of how the electorate chooses to distribute power. In that event the two major parties may well have no choice but to continue their uneasy power-sharing arrangement. Most Israelis probably wouldn’t be too disappointed should that happen. Continuing the present arrangement, with its built-in impediments to change, strongly suggests that on the key matter of what to do about the occupied territories the status quo would continue. The appeal of the status quo is that it’s a known quantity. However unpleasant it may have become, there are many who prefer it to the uncertainties that pursuing a new course could bring.
A certain coziness with the familiar, though,should not be taken to rule out any interest in change. Fully 65% of Israelis, according to a recent poll, say that they are prepared to make major territorial concessions in return for peace. Could the opportunity to exchange land for peace feasibly present itself in the next year or so? A lot depends on what comes from the Arab side, specifically whether the Palestine Liberation Organization can overcome its own formidable internal divisions and bring itself to renounce terrorism, acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy and permanency, and so achieve credibility and respectability as a serious party to negotiations.
The rest of the answer depends on what Israelis decide. Labor is ready to swap territory for peace; Likud, both philosophically and practically, regards any withdrawal from the West Bank as unacceptable. A coalition government deadlocked on the territorial question can survive, as the present one has survived, so long as it is not confronted with a tangible and compelling need to give a definitive response. But if events in fact force a decision, if a clear and conciliatory offer comes from the Arab side, then Israel will have no alternative to facing the issue squarely. The electorate for now seems comfortable in not having to confront that issue. The time may be nearing, though, when it can no longer be avoided.