The Blog

Is Israel About to Turn Sharp Right?

How would you feel if I told you that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will soon be the most moderate member of his own government? And that means his next Cabinet will be more right-wing too. Two-state solution? Forget it.

How would you feel if I told you that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, will soon be the most moderate member of his own government?

He's a man regarded by officials in the capital of Israel's most important ally, the United States, as impossibly difficult to deal with -- and he made no secret of the fact that he very much hoped President Obama would be defeated in last November's elections.

Yet when Israelis go to the polls in 11 days' time, they're likely to elect a Knesset (parliament) in which MPs to the right of Mr Netanyahu will be substantially more numerous than they are now. And that means his next Cabinet will be more right-wing too.

According to the canny Israeli analyst David Horovitz of the Times of Israel: "The right has become the far-right." And if that's how it turns out, it almost certainly spells the end of any prospect of progress towards a settlement of Israel's dispute with the Palestinians.

Two-state solution? Forget it -- even if President Obama really tries to push for a settlement (and let's be honest, there's been no sign so far that he intends to), Mr Netanyahu will simply say sorry, no can do, the Knesset won't wear it.

Here's the situation: Israelis have discovered they can live with the status quo. With the exception of those periods when Palestinian fighters fire rockets into Israel from Gaza, spreading real fear but causing mercifully few casualties, the vast majority of Israelis can get on with their daily lives without thinking about Palestinians at all.

So why even talk to them? Most Israelis still say they believe in a two-state solution, but it's the sort of thing you can say without having to think too much about it. After all, anyone who looks at a map of where the Israelis have already built in the West Bank, which they've occupied now for more than 45 years -- and where they intend to build -- can see the reality: there's no room left for anything that would remotely resemble a viable Palestinian state.

Ariel Sharon, still lying in a coma after suffering a massive stroke seven years ago, understood better than anyone how to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state: he talked of creating "irreversible facts on the ground" -- and that's exactly what he and his successors have done.

Back in 1980, Sharon took two senior American reporters, William Claiborne and Ed Cody of the Washington Post, on a tour of the West Bank. At that time, there were no more than 14,000 Israeli settlers living there (now the number is more than 350,000, plus another 300,000 in east Jerusalem, also occupied by Israel since 1967).

This is what he told them then: "We are going to leave an entirely different map of the country that it will be impossible to ignore ... I believe in things that are done, in facts that are created."

It's true that some Israelis do see a way round Sharon's "irreversible facts" -- by proposing that Israel hangs on to much of the land in the West Bank that it has built on, and swaps it for bits of the Negev desert and Galilee region which have been in Israel since 1948 but which are inhabited overwhelmingly by Palestinians.

If there were any real political will to negotiate such a deal -- on both sides -- then maybe, just maybe, there'd be a chance. But on the Palestinian side, the pro-negotiations Fatah party led by Mahmoud Abbas is a broken reed -- and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls Gaza, is still a very long way from talking the language of compromise.

So, to many Israelis, it may look as if what they have now is sustainable, that somehow the Palestinians in the West Bank will eventually forget that they ever wanted a state of their own or the opportunity to decide their own futures -- and that Palestinians in Gaza will no longer mind living in what they have long called the world's biggest open-air prison.

In my view, this is a profound, and potentially disastrous, mistake. Israelis need only look to their neighbours in Egypt and Syria to see what happens when prolonged injustice is allowed to fester. But for now, what many Israelis see is a region mired in uncertainty and instability, and growing Islamist power which looks deeply alarming.

That, I suspect, is why they're turning to leaders who speak the language of strength and resistance to compromise. What matters to them is not whether they're liked, or even whether they're approved of. What matters is that they're feared.