Gilad Hirschberger is associate professor of social and political psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
As the general elections in Israel approach, there is one question on everyone’s mind: Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s seat shaky after a decade of relatively stable rule? The answer to this question may be found in the curious discrepancy between Israelis’ political identification and their attitudes on the central issues facing the country.
Can the entrance of Benny Gantz, a former general but political rookie, into the political arena alter the Israeli political map, change the trajectory of the country from crawling annexation to conflict resolution, and reconcile the tension between fear and hope?
Israelis increasingly identify as right-wing and vote for hard-line right-wing parties. The violence against Israelis following the Oslo accords, the failed Camp David talks and the disengagement from Gaza have ostensibly snapped Israelis out of naive hopes for peace, led them to realize that liberal snowflakes tend to melt in the harsh Middle East sun, and forced them to understand that in this tough neighborhood, only the strong survive.
Opinion polls show that the percentage of Israelis willing to profess their alliance to the left has dwindled and dropped to a meager 8 percent, and that the Labor Party, the party that founded the state of Israel, has shriveled in size from a peak of 44 seats in the 1992 elections to five or six seats projected in the coming elections. Research indicates that the left has been demonized to the extent that merely uttering the word “left” is met with scorn. The rightward shift, alas, seems broad and robust.
However, when looking at the attitudes Israelis hold in regard to the conflict with the Palestinians, a strikingly different picture emerges. Opinion polls carried out since 1993 show that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution — a solution championed by the Israeli left.
In polls I conducted over the past year with Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), we expanded the question to ask about support for other policy alternatives as well, such as the annexation of the West Bank — an idea with rising popularity in the ruling Likud party — and unilateral separation from the West Bank, a pragmatic step forward without a formal peace agreement.
We found that slightly less than half of the Jewish Israeli public supports a two-state solution, but were surprised to discover that another 25 percent or so support unilateral separation, meaning that nearly 75 percent of Israeli Jews support pragmatic and moderate solutions to the conflict with the Palestinians. Only about 15 percent of Israelis support annexation of the West Bank. We are, thus, faced with a paradox: Israelis identify as right and vote for right-wing parties, but think leftist thoughts.
How can we explain this discrepancy? One obvious answer is that, in Israel, security is the primary concern that trumps everything else. Israelis may be supportive of compromise with the Palestinians, but they will not compromise their own security. A deal that does not come with compelling security assurances is a nonstarter.
Another explanation is that while Israelis are highly aware of the security threat to their country, they are oblivious to the threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character if the country continues to rule over 2.6 million West Bank Palestinians. When asked to rate the severity of different threats facing the country, security invariably comes first, and the threat to Israel’s identity appears at the very end of the list. It seems, therefore, that Israelis are supportive of peace in principle, but turn a blind eye to the implications of failing to separate from the West Bank in the near future.
High levels of support for pragmatic solutions to the conflict are thus stifled by a relative lack of interest in this topic. Moreover, whereas only a minority of Israelis supports annexation of the West Bank, they support this policy with zeal. Supporters of the two-state solution or unilateral separation may be a majority, but their support for these policies is more tempered. A determined minority will often hijack the public agenda when the majority is asleep.
This is where Gantz stands a chance. Waving a sword in his right hand while holding an olive branch in his left may both assuage Israelis’ existential concerns and place the prospect of peace back on the table. Come April 9 we will learn whether Gantz is another false messiah in a long list of generals who did well in the polls and failed in the ballots, or whether he has what it takes to oust Netanyahu and find new ways to reconcile Israel’s long-lasting security-identity dilemma.