Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has set new elections in Israel for March 17. Israel has had critical elections before, but this could be its most important, because the Israeli right today is no longer dominated by security hawks and free-marketeers like Netanyahu. It is dominated by West Bank settlers and scary religious-nationalist zealots like Naftali Bennett, who, if they run the next government and effectively annex the West Bank, will lead Israel into a dark corner, increasingly alienated from Europe, America and the next generation of American Jews.
At the same time, the neighborhood Israel lives in has never been so full of threats. If the Israeli center-left and center-right want to avoid the South African future that the Israeli far-right is offering them, then they have to create a coalition that can convince the Israeli silent majority that they understand, and can blunt, those threats – and allow Israel to securely withdraw from most of the West Bank, either in a negotiated deal with the Palestinians or unilaterally.
“The importance of the 2015 election cannot be too highly emphasized,” Ari Shavit, the Haaretz columnist wrote last week. “This time the question isn’t about the price of an apartment or cottage (cheese), but whether there will be a home for us at all. This time the struggle isn’t about convenience but about the core of our existence. Because this time the forces threatening Israeli democracy and the Zionist enterprise from within are unprecedented in their power.”
So how might the Israeli center contest this foundational election? The best approach I’ve heard comes from Amos Yadlin, Israel’s former chief of defense intelligence, and the pilot who dropped the bomb through the roof of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor. Yadlin, who now directs Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, argued to me that Israel’s center needs to run on the core values of its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. That is an Israel, he said, “that understands the limits of power of a small country,” and is focused solely on building “a state that has a Jewish majority, a state that is democratic where all citizens are equal, a state that is secure even in a threatening environment and a state whose higher moral caliber is as valued as it was in the past.” And that means a state with a clear, secure border with its Palestinian neighbors.
Yadlin is a tough-minded analyst. He worries that the Israeli right is completely out of touch with the nation’s standing in the world and the left with the dangers in the neighborhood. Although he knows that all his Ben-Gurion goals may not be achievable (and Israel may not have a Palestinian partner), he wants the next Israeli government to get caught trying - and trying again - to achieve them. What distinguishes him from Netanyahu and the Israeli right is that Yadlin is not looking for excuses to say that Israel has no negotiating partner, the way Netanyahu did out of fear that genuine negotiations about borders would blow up his right-wing ruling coalition, or the way the Jewish settlers do, because they know genuine negotiations would blow up their messianic vision for forever controlling the West Bank.
Yadlin says he wants the next Israeli government to take “all of Israel’s innovative spirit and brains” and apply them to “out-of-the-box thinking” to find a secure way forward. He sketched three paths for me based on the Israeli-designed traffic management application Waze.com. “As with Waze, if one route is blocked, one recalibrates and chooses a different route to the same destination,” Yadlin said. “We propose: the bilateral negotiations route; the Arab Peace Initiative route; and the independent route.”
The preferred route, Yadlin argues, “is that of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians to reach a permanent agreement. If this track is impossible, as was proved in 2013-14, then it is time to move to the second route, that of a revised Arab Peace Initiative.”
Try to leverage the willingness of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel if it reaches a deal with the Palestinians. The more the Arab states put on the table, the more Palestinians can, in effect, offer Israel and the more cover Palestinians will have for concessions they will have to make.
“If this route, too, proves to be blocked,” he said, “we must move to an independent track that will ensure that the viable two-state solution is kept. Israel will deploy along borders that guarantee a Jewish majority and a secure state.”
Netanyahu will still be a formidable candidate, but, interestingly, his popularity plummeted when he called for new elections. I know why: Israelis, though dubious about Palestinian intentions and terrified of their region, are tired of a leader who keeps telling them: there is no exit, everyone hates us and the future will be full of yesterdays. In a country whose national anthem is “Hatikvah” – “The Hope” – the prime minister came to symbolize the opposite to many Israelis, who still want someone with the attributes of Ben-Gurion to test and retest whether hope is possible. The Israeli candidate or party that understands that will have a great chance of winning.