Israel’s right turn

Change is not in the air in Israel. The public mood is as unyielding as Jerusalem stone after a three-week war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and a national election campaign that focused more on conflict management than on conflict resolution. Voters casting ballots today appear to favor promises of security over peacemaking, although the two are inextricably linked.

The parties topping preelection polls are all headed by current or former members of the right-wing Likud Party. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Likud leader who helped bury the Oslo peace accords the last time he was prime minister, is the front-runner and likeliest candidate to be asked to form a new government. His main challenger is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who left Likud with Ariel Sharon to form the centrist Kadima party. She has said she would continue peace negotiations with the Palestinians, although she also has spoken of more military strikes on Gaza, apparently to reassure Israelis that she’s as tough as the next guy.

The fastest-growing party, the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), is headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a West Bank settler and former Netanyahu aide who campaigned on a platform of “no loyalty, no citizenship” for Israeli Arabs. He may well be the kingmaker in any coalition government, because neither Netanyahu nor Livni is poised to win a majority of seats in the Knesset. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s center-left Labor Party is losing ground. He had expected the Gaza war to boost his chances of returning to the prime minister’s office, but voters seem swayed by Netanyahu’s argument that Barak shouldn’t have stopped the Gaza operation before finishing off Hamas.

There are many reasons for Israel’s move to the right, starting with the 2006 war in Lebanon, where Hezbollah guerrillas stood up to the mighty Israel Defense Forces and left the country questioning its powers of deterrence. After Israel withdrew settlements from Gaza, Hamas ousted the moderate Palestinian Authority there. Israel imposed a punishing blockade, and Hamas stepped up its rocketing of Israeli towns in the Negev. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is seen by many to be too weak to make peace without Hamas, leaving Israelis feeling that they have no peace partner -- even if they wanted one. The impulse to pull back from peace negotiations is understandable, but it will not be productive.

Years of delayed peacemaking have only made peace more elusive. Walls, fences and checkpoints built in the name of security have created generations of Israelis and Palestinians who know no one from the other side and see nothing but the blunt force of the enemy.

Israel will never be truly secure without peace, and will never have peace without a negotiated agreement to end the occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war. It needs a leader who will help restore the country’s faith in peacemaking.