The 2019 Israeli election campaign is only a couple of weeks old, and already there’s been plenty of drama. The splitting of various parties has also been accompanied by drama about the possibility that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted on corruption charges—or subjected to hearings about an indictment—in the weeks before voters head to the polls.
We don’t know yet what the final lineup of parties and candidates will look like or if Netanyahu, who is favored to win his fourth consecutive election and fifth term as prime minister, will be sunk by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit with consequences that cannot be predicted.
But there is one thing that would appear not to be in doubt. The results will once again vindicate a broad consensus about peace with the Palestinians that has existed in Israel since the end of the Second Intifada more than 15 years ago.
That was made clear by a statement made by Benny Gantz about the future of some controversial Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Speaking to Israel’s Channel 12 television network, Gantz stated that “the Etzion bloc, Ariel, Ofra and Elkana will remain forever.” While he added that the question of “how we arrange that they will remain forever” was still to be determined, the significance of his choice of those four places cannot be underestimated.
Even advocates of a two-state solution have conceded that Israel would hold onto parts of Jerusalem over the Green Line and the major settlement blocs that are close to the 1967 lines. Both the Etzion bloc and Elkana fall within those blocs. Ariel is a small city with a university, but since it is 10 miles from the Green Line, the Palestinians and their supporters say it must be abandoned to create a contiguous state alongside Israel.
However, there is no way for Ofra—a settlement in the heart of the West Bank and located alongside the highway that is the principal north-south thoroughfare cutting through the region—to be kept inside Israel without making it impossible for the Palestinians to have a contiguous state.
Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, is by no means a supporter of the settlement movement. Indeed, he reportedly had a fractious relationship with Netanyahu while in office and is eager to see him pushed out. He has entered politics for the first time in order to give Israelis a mainstream alternative to the prime minister.
Gantz and his new Israel Resilience Party are the 2019 version of Israeli centrism. In virtually every Israeli election since 1977, a party has emerged that tried to bridge the gap between right and left. Often, they are led by former military men like Gantz, who are viewed as above the political fray principally because they have no prior experience in governing. While Gantz’s group may prove more “resilient” than those previous examples, up until now they have all come to grief after a successful election or two because their leaders eventually prove that they haven’t any betters answers to the country’s problems than those in Likud, Labor or any of the other established parties.
But the importance of Gantz’s statement is that it demonstrates that even those who self-consciously style themselves as centrists don’t think it wise for Israel to make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians, or to plan on evicting even a minority of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live across the Green Line in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
It’s something of a shock for most American Jews hostile to Netanyahu and his right-wing allies to realize that those who share their views in Israel represent only a tiny minority of voters. As has been evident since the Palestinian Authority literally blew up the faith of Israelis in the Oslo peace process during the Second Intifada, a consensus exists from the center left to the center right in Israel that at present, no Palestinian partner for peace exists.
The refusal of even the supposedly moderate P.A. and its leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn, and its financial support of terrorists and its fomenting of hate against Israelis and Jews has made it obvious that Israelis are no longer split down the middle on peace. The notion of handing over territory to it and, in effect, replicating former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s experiment in Gaza—whereby the withdrawal of every Israeli soldier, settlement and settler was answered by the creation of a terrorist state—is widely considered not so much wrong as sheer madness.
That’s why Israeli centrists and even moderate left-wingers have largely given up talking about relinquishing up more territory for the foreseeable future. Though most Israelis would probably still be willing to trade land for real peace as opposed to more terror, the overwhelming majority understand that just isn’t possible right now.
So when Gantz, who is being touted by some as a realistic alternative to Netanyahu in the April elections, speaks in terms that make it clear that there is little practical difference between his stand and that of the prime minister’s, American Jews who are critical of the Israeli government should take notice. If an acknowledged centrist (though the prime minister labels Gantz a closet “leftist”) determined to defeat the prime minister wants to hold onto Ofra “forever,” then it’s time to stop pretending that most Israeli think the lack of peace can be blamed on Netanyahu, rather than on the fact that Abbas and the Palestinians are still clinging to their century-old war on Zionism.
Gantz may still be something of a blank slate in terms of policies, but by now it’s obvious that no matter who wins, the Israeli consensus on territory and peace still stands. That’s something Americans who talk about being friends of Israel should respect.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.