JERUSALEM — Peacemaking with the Palestinians, once the main issue by far in Israeli politics, has been strikingly absent from the campaign for next month's general election. After years of public frustration with failed peace efforts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's badly divided challengers are trying instead to tap the economic angst of the middle class and a widespread resentment of perks enjoyed by fervently devout Jews.
Shelly Yachimovich, the ex-journalist leader of the Labor Party, traditionally the main grouping on the center-left, has appeared especially determined to ignore the Palestinian issue in favor of socialist-tinged economic proposals – and she has started to draw fire from her allies as polls show Netanyahu and his allies maintaining a significant lead.
The calculation appears to be that too many Israelis have concluded that the gaps with the Palestinians are unbridgeable. From the Israeli perspective, twice in the past 12 years the Palestinians have been presented with exceedingly reasonable territorial offers, without result. The Palestinians reject that narrative – but it has set in within Israel, making peace advocates seem naive and out of touch to many.
"Most politicians think, rightfully so, that Israelis don't believe in peace anyway," said Tom Segev, a left-leaning historian who has chronicled regional events for decades. "This is a generation of Israelis who have been talking about peace for the last 45 years and not much has happened. So they don't believe in it anymore."
Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon of Netanyahu's Likud Party found himself in rare agreement with Segev on the issue. "The public in Israel has understood that no matter who leads the country, there won't be a peace process in the near future ... so the issue isn't even on the agenda," Danon said. "We have to focus on conflict management instead of conflict resolution."
Netanyahu has complicated the equation by accepting, in a 2009 speech shortly after he was elected, the principle of a Palestinian state. In appearing to reverse his longstanding position, he stole the left wing's thunder. But he risked little because his terms, far less generous than those offered by his more accommodating predecessors fell well short of Palestinian demands. They have never been tested in his four years of power, typified by deadlock and the absence of real negotiations.
On the other hand, Netanyahu's tough persona strikes many as appropriate in a region that has grown increasingly uncertain and dangerous given the turbulence sweeping the Arab world, the rise of Islamists in neighboring countries, and fears about Iran's nuclear program. Israel, the U.S. and allies believe Tehran is seeking to develop atomic arms, although Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Yachimovich and others on the left appear to have concluded that under these circumstances, the prime minister is more vulnerable on social issues. In particular, she is trying to tap the frustrations caused by the fact that while the country has a per capita income that is on par with Western Europe, many people feel impoverished.
The reasons for that include high inequality, a soaring cost of living and high taxes caused by extraordinary expenses including security needs and benefits enjoyed by privileged sectors like the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population whose sectarian parties support Netanyahu. Mass social protests erupted last summer against Israel's high cost of living and the erosion of social welfare safeguards.
Yachimovich, who has spent seven years in politics focusing on social and economic affairs, capitalized on the discontent to win the party primary and improve its fortunes somewhat in the polls. The list of candidates for parliament that she helped engineer is dominated by veterans and newcomers known more for their devotion to social causes than to peace activism.
The trend was accelerated when Yair Lapid, a popular TV anchor and author, entered the political fray, establishing a new party that instantly became a factor in the polls. While his past opinions on the Palestinian issue put him squarely in what is called the "center-left" bloc – that is, those who oppose Netanyahu's Likud – he too has sidestepped the issue in favor of championing the middle class and opposing the ultra-Orthodox.
Prodded on a Friday evening newscast to describe what his party stands for, Lapid didn't once mention peace with the Palestinians or security issues. "I want (to be) someone who represents the interests of the Israeli middle class, which works like a dog and can't make ends meet," he said on Channel 2 TV.
Critics warn that Israel is playing with fire by ignoring an issue so central to its future.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat predicted disastrous consequences if Israelis didn't give priority to resolving the conflict. "Ignoring facts doesn't mean they don't exist," Erekat said. "They ignore the fact that there's been an abnormal occupation going on since 1967. That is surely political blindness that has always led to disasters."
In the past, Palestinian frustration with impasses in peacemaking has boiled over into bloodshed – and in recent weeks violence has increased in the West Bank, while Israeli fears have risen over the possibility of a third Palestinian uprising.
Political commentator Sima Kadmon said in the Yedioth Aharonoth daily newspaper that the strategy was to brand the Labor Party as a social party while rejecting and ignoring diplomatic issues, but she said "Yachimovich has gone too far."
Entering that vacuum is Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and top negotiator with the Palestinians. She formed her own party, The Movement, several weeks ago, and by stridently attacking Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue and calling for a new peace push she has taken support from Lapid and Yachimovich.
"I came to fight for peace," she said two weeks ago, in announcing her new party's formation. "I won't allow anyone to turn peace into a bad word."
A peacemaking agenda has also kept the small Meretz Party on the fringes of Israeli politics for years.
It may not matter much unless one of these parties starts taking votes from the right-wing bloc.
A poll in the Maariv daily this weekend showed Labor with 20 of the 120 Knesset seats, well behind Likud at 38; Livni and Lapid's parties stood at 9 and 8 respectively; Meretz had three; Kadima, the former governing party that Livni once led and that briefly displaced Labor at the top of the center-left bloc, is seen as wiped out. And overall, the Likud-led rightist bloc had 67 seats, enough for re-election. The poll surveyed 501 people and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Disillusionment with peacemaking is hardly new. Palestinian suicide attacks and drive-by shootings that followed interim peace accords of the 1990s created an uproar that peaked with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination at the hands of a Jewish extremist who opposed his peace moves. The disenchantment took root even further when Palestinians launched a new uprising against Israel in late 2000 after the two sides failed to reach a U.S.-brokered accord.
The concept of trading land for peace drew increasing skepticism here after Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005 exposed the country to rocket attacks – and eventually led to wars – on both fronts. Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, says he offered the Palestinians all of Gaza, the vast majority of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem in 2008 – but the offer was not accepted and he was soon out of office; Palestinians dispute the details of this claim.
If anything, peacemaking seems to be preoccupying foreign powers more than it is troubling Israelis. Leaders from the United States and European Union regularly call for a resumption of peace talks.
Political scientist Zeev Sternhell said Israeli politicians are making a big mistake by acting as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the country's burning problem. His logic – increasingly dominant among Israelis on the center-left – was primarily demographic: If a Palestinian state isn't set up soon, Israel will find itself ruling a Palestinian population that is larger than its Jewish one – and the existence of Palestinian autonomy zones set up in the 1990s will not be enough for a true separation.
"If we don't partition, we will have an apartheid state or a binational state," Sternhell said. "That's not what Zionism set out to do."