If you heard that Ariel Sharon and the Likud party won a smashing victory in Israel’s elections this week, don’t believe it too quickly. Likud will have less than a third of the seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Sharon wants to form a centrist unity government. But the Israeli public is so badly split that a unity government may well prove impossible. So Sharon may have to lead a right-wing coalition in order to rule. That will polarize Israeli political life even more.
Whatever happens, Israel’s new government is likely to be most unstable. Sharon will not dare take any bold new initiatives. He will do what all scared people do: play it safe. He will try to avoid disaster by doing as little as possible. The Israeli government will be pretty well paralyzed.
That is an accurate reflection of Israeli public opinion. Record numbers of Israeli voters stayed home on Tuesday, because they saw no hope of any leader offering positive change. Among those who voted, polls show that few see any virtue in Sharon’s policies. Most want a peace settlement, even if it means creating a Palestinian state. That includes many who voted for Likud or other right-wing parties. But they see no way to peace. They are afraid to take a chance on a new direction.
Too many Israelis have fallen victim to the relentless, brilliantly executed propaganda campaign, conceived by the Sharon right in the fall of 2001. It’s message was simple: We want peace, but no one on the other side will make peace. Arafat is unable and / or unwilling to make peace. Until the Palestinians get a new leader, we have no partner for peace. Like any big lie, this one relies not on evidence (since there was virtually none), but on constant repetition.
The most crucial bloc in this election was the disillusioned liberals. They heard the big lie so often that they came to believe it. Once, they voted enthusiastically for Rabin, Barak, and peace. Now they would not support Labor Party leader Mitzna, because they saw his plans to negotiate peace as unrealistic.
The disillusioned liberals have joined the Israeli political center in making “peace is impossible” a self-fulfilling prophecy. That leaves them politically exhausted, in despair, afraid of the future but fatalistic. They feel stuck. So they voted to stay stuck, or else they didn’t bother to vote at all.
The paralysis in Israel directly affects U.S. policy. The risk-averse Israeli government will be less able and willing to respond to any U.S. peace initiative. That will give the hawks in the Bush administration more influence. They will argue that, with nothing to be gained at the bargaining table, there is no alternative to sheer muscle in the Middle East, starting with Iraq.
A Bush administration headed toward war will meet an American public quite different from the Israelis. The gloomy predictions of a wave of mindless patriotism here after 9/11 just have not come true. The post-9/11 fear and despair have been rapidly lifting, giving way to a thoughtful assessment of the nation’s priorities. Ordinary people from all walks of life are carefully examining President Bush’s rhetoric. They are making distinctions among the so-called “enemies” that Bush wants to lump together in a simple-minded “axis of evil.” A war against Al-Qaeda still has tremendous support. But war against Iraq or North Korea does not.
These thoughtful Americans do not feel exhausted, stuck, or fatalistic. They know they have what the philosophers call agency. They know that their opinions can make a difference, and they are acting on that belief.
If paralysis in Israel helps to push the Bush administration toward war, that will help catalyze and energize the peace movement here. As it grows, U.S. political life may come to resemble the polarization in Israel. But we should not expect to see exhaustion or paralysis here. The energy we already see offers hope that growing numbers of Americans will seize the opportunity to do what Israelis would not do: form independent judgments, act upon them, and demand new directions in policy that will lead their nation on a road to peace.
That could eventually reinvigorate Israel’s liberals. They pay close attention to what happens in the U.S. For years, they have seen only apathy and disorganization among liberals here. A thoughtful and powerful movement for peace in the U.S. could help to break through the disillusionment and inspire Israeli liberals to reclaim their agency too.
First, though, the U.S. peace movement must pierce the big lie and insist on the truth: most Palestinians are quite ready to make peace, if Israel agrees to a viable, territorially contiguous, fully independent Palestinian state, with full economic cooperation between the two that serves both equally well. If we repeat that truth often enough, show genuine concern for Israelis as well as Palestinians, and keep up our campaign for peaceful policies from Washington, we may find both the U.S. and Israel heading toward peace sooner than we think.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.