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Israelis tipped to back Netanyahu again, despite supporting statehood

About two thirds of Israeli Jews consistently say in a survey that they support Palestinian statehood yet they appear certain to re-elect a settlement-building government. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

Israeli voters are expected to back Benjamin Netanyahu - whose outgoing government last year issued the highest number of settlement building tenders in at least a decade - for a third premiership on Tuesday. Oded Balilty / AP Photo
Israeli voters are expected to back Benjamin Netanyahu - whose outgoing government last year issued the highest number of settlement building tenders in at least a decade - for a third premiership on Tuesday. Oded Balilty / AP Photo

TEL AVIV // In a monthly survey taken since the 1993 Oslo Accords, which gave Palestinians a measure of self rule, about two thirds of Israeli Jews have consistently said they supported Palestinian statehood.

Nevertheless, Israelis in the 2009 election chose a parliament with mostly right-wing members who support Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, territory Palestinians want for a state.

Tomorrow, voters are expected to back Benjamin Netanyahu - whose outgoing government last year issued the highest number of settlement building tenders in at least a decade - for a third premiership.

While the discrepancy may induce head scratching, analysts say that most Israeli Jews - at least in theory - support Palestinian statehood but have grown pessimistic that the peace process can be resolved.

Indeed, many Israeli Jews surveyed view Iran's nuclear ambitions and the influence of Islamist groups in neighbouring countries such as Egypt - which they fear could spur a possible war against Israel - as bigger security threats than not resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, according to the Peace Index, the monthly telephone survey of 601 adult Jewish Israelis conducted jointly by Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem-based think tank, Israel Democracy Institute.

They also see issues, such as their economic troubles, as more urgent for their leaders to tackle.

Ephraim Yaar, a professor at Tel Aviv University who oversees the survey, said about two thirds of those polled since 1993 have said they would back peace negotiations with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

However, almost 70 per cent of Israel's Jewish citizens surveyed now also say they do not believe negotiations will lead to a peace agreement in the coming years.

That pessimism has grown significantly since Israel's withdrawal of its civilians and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which was followed two years later by the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas violently taking control of the enclave, Mr Yaar said. Before the evacuation, 52 per cent of Israeli Jews polled were pessimistic about peace talks reaping results, he said.

Many Israelis have since come to believe - with the encouragement of hardline politicians such as Mr Netanyahu - that further Israeli pullouts from the West Bank would lead to that territory also being taken over by Hamas and other Palestinian factions that are hostile to Israel. That option would leave main cities such as Tel Aviv, some 20 kilometres from the West Bank, exposed to rocket attacks just as southern Israel has been targeted by rocket barrages from Gaza.

"Israeli Jews say Israel cannot afford to leave right now because they don't trust the Palestinians and because of the Islamisation of the Arab world. They are frightened because they don't just look at the Palestinians but also at Israel's Arab neighbours," Mr Yaar said.

Partly spurred by the increasing pessimism over a peace agreement, more Israelis appear to have made the shift to the right. According to Mr Yaar's polls, 55 per cent of Israelis polled identify themselves as clearly on the right, up from 45 per cent a decade ago.

Tamir Shaefer, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said many Israelis don't see the Palestinians as a peace partner because of events such as Hamas's Gaza takeover and a bitter division between Hamas and the secular, West Bank-based Fatah, the two dominant Palestinian factions.

"The rationale of right-wing voters who support the two-state solution is that they don't see Netanyahu as doing everything in his power to prevent the peace process. Instead, they blame the Palestinians for the impasse. They believe that if there will eventually be a Palestinian partner, Netanyahu will go forward, but slowly and carefully," he said.

Mr Shaefer added that many supporters of the two-state solution vote for right-wing parties because they view the latter's hardline policies as better suited than those of more doveish movements to "protect" Israel in the face of threats such as that posed by Hamas.

Analysts say that many Israeli Jews in this campaign season have cared less about a party's stance on the Palestinians than its position on how to mitigate high living costs. Media coverage of economic issues such as jobs and housing has indeed ballooned since mass economic and social protests took place in mid-2011.

The election campaigns of parties across the political spectrum have reflected pessimism over the peace process and boosted attention on economic issues.

The Labour party, the once-dominant movement in Israel whose political power had plunged along with prospects for the Oslo Accords that it had forged in the 1990s, has tried drawing right-of-centre voters by campaigning on the economy and avoiding criticising settlers.

vbekker@thenational.ae

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