As the results of the Israeli election were broadcast, many who hoped and worked for peace between Israelis and Palestinians stared at their TV screens with jaws dropped in stunned disappointment.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who had just a day earlier declared he would never allow a Palestinian state to emerge under his watch – a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine – won a significant election victory that will allow him to form a right-wing coalition to govern Israel for some years to come.
The truth is, no one should be surprised by Netanyahu’s stance or the support he got for it. He has long opposed Palestinian self-determination and preferred perpetual occupation or apartheid instead. In the past, he had declared his government the “most pro-settlement government in history,” referring to the establishment of Israeli colonies in occupied Palestinian territory that fly in the face of the two-state outcome.
The question now is this: How should the U.S. respond, given that Netanyahu cannot even pretend to support the peace agenda, after the statements he made recently confirmed what his actions have been saying all along?
Reports suggested that had Herzog, Netanyahu’s main challenger, been elected, the Obama administration would attempt to quickly reengage in a peace process during the last years of Obama’s presidency and the waning years of 80-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ life. It would have been the last chance at a two-state solution that John Kerry declared, two years ago, only had two years left to live.
In many ways, it is very good that this did not come to pass. Such an attempt at reviving a flawed peace process would have led to inevitable failure for many reasons. Even if Herzog was elected he would not have a broad mandate to make the concessions necessary for real peace and the United States, acting as it has traditionally done, would not have provided the necessary pressure to change Israeli behavior.
What is needed now is for policymakers to engage in a moment of deep reevaluation and throw out the two-state framework that has underpinned U.S. policy for the last several decades. Just like President Obama said about the U.S.’s failed policy toward Cuba, “It’s time for a new approach.”
That new approach should change the focus of a peace framework from one that is based on land-for-peace to one that is based on rights-for-peace. This means Palestinians would not only have rights to live on their land, but they would have the right to vote, have freedom of movement, due process and equal treatment before the law and all of the other rights we, as Americans, hold dear.
Instead of a “peace process,” what we really need is an equality process. For too long, the peace process has sought to advance a notion of peace that compromised Palestinian rights; it is no wonder that it failed over and over. Only through advancing Palestinian rights and equality can peace be achieved – not the other way around.
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Of course, Benjamin Netanyahu and others who are privileged by a system that marginalizes and disenfranchises Palestinians will object to this. Just as the white establishment in Selma, Alabama objected to giving blacks the vote because it would mean more equitable sharing of political power, we must expect that self-interested Israeli leaders will not relent on the matter of Palestinian rights easily.
But the answer, as the civil rights movement taught us in the 1960s, was not to avoid this confrontation but to challenge it head on: to cross that bridge in Selma knowing full well that harsh resistance awaited on the other side, but to do so anyway because it was the right thing to do.
The U.S. must prepare for an era of increased confrontation with Israel if it continues to oppose American values. There will certainly be hesitancy to take this approach in Washington, where elected officials gravitate to the path of least resistance. But lawmakers will find growing support, particularly from the base of the Democratic Party, which is increasingly appalled by Israeli behavior and Netanyahu’s policies in particular.
While U.S. public opinion on Israel is still favorable, among younger demographics and minorities that opinion is much different. These demographics are not just the base of the Democratic Party, but also the future of America. Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the United States in large part because of a real divide in the views at the bases of the parties.
While the Republican base features nativist and Islamophobic narratives of exclusion, the Democratic base features a progressive discourse of inclusion. Netanyahu, his policies, and the system Zionism has imposed on Palestinians increasingly fit only on the right end of that spectrum.
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If policymakers are bold and smart, they will move quickly to press Israel immediately to dissolve these systems of injustice. If they hold off, the public will ultimately push them in that direction, but probably much further down the line.
I hope, for the sake of all the lives that can be spared from the systemic violence that is military occupation, that Washington seizes this moment to make a significant shift instead of waiting.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.