Israel's political turmoil has brought the country to an important inflection point: For the first time in a decade, its prime minister could be someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu. Barring an eleventh-hour deal to form a government by the December 11 deadline, it seems as if Israel—for the third time in less than a year—is fated to go to yet another election next spring. And with Netanyahu facing formal indictment and trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and having already twice failed to form a government, it’s hard to imagine him winning at the polls, never mind assembling a governing coalition.
When he departs, a lot will change right away: Netanyahu’s cult-like figure will have left the stage, and his corrupt practices will be over. The state’s illiberal drift might well be halted and respect for the rule of law, the judiciary and democratic norms enhanced; and the fanning of hate and fearmongering toward Israel’s Arab minority potentially could abate.
But as for significant changes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—the one issue that seems to retain the bulk of the world’s interest? Not so much. And that will be the case regardless of what government replaces Netanyahu's. In fact, paradoxically, Netanyahu’s replacement by a less contentious and more reasonable prime minister may well ensure that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains more about managing a process than securing a peace.
This is true no matter if the election’s outcome is a National Unity Government composed of Likud (minus Netanyahu) and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, or a narrower coalition formed by Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. There could be ameliorations, of course. A Gantz-led government in particular might seek to improve living conditions in the West Bank, slow down the pace of settlement construction outside of the major settlement blocs and avoid some of its predecessor’s most provocative desires such as formal annexation of the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian leadership, under virtually no international pressure to restart negotiations with Israel as long as Netanyahu is in power, might feel compelled to do so with a more acceptable prime minister in his place. And the U.S. administration might finally unveil its peace plan, long-awaited and long-forgotten in equal measure.
Yet none of this would add up to measurable progress on the way to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. History has long taught that economic betterment of the Palestinians is no substitute for steps that address their political aspirations. Prospects for successful peace negotiations on core final status issues—such as borders and Jerusalem—seem equally dubious. Gantz would be greeted with high expectations; he is, after all, a former Israeli general and chief of staff cut in the mold of Yitzhak Rabin: strong, pragmatic and potentially flexible.
But Gantz is no man of the left. He is, if anything, a representative of the old right—a tough, militant patriot whose primary focus isn’t on ending conflict with the Palestinians but ending incivility, divisiveness and polarization among Israelis. Gantz was virtually silent on the Palestinian issue during his two electoral campaigns, preferring, like Netanyahu, to focus on the threat from Iran. He has taken the current government to task for being too soft in its policies toward Gaza. He supports permanent Israeli control over the Jordan Valley. He has welcomed all of President Donald Trump’s most controversial steps, including his administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and announce that settlements do not contravene international law. He may have done some of this chiefly for electoral purposes, to avoid being painted as too far to the left. But Gantz is hardly a free agent. He will be constrained by his party’s leadership, including the hawkish Moshe Ya’alon and more than a few of its members who might feel just as comfortable among the ranks of the Bibi-less Likud.
Not that the Israeli government’s makeup would be the only obstacle to meaningful peacemaking. The Palestinian side presents its own considerable challenges. Divided and dysfunctional, its leadership has lacked a coherent military or diplomatic strategy to end the occupation or negotiate a two-state solution. The split between Fatah and Hamas, the principal branches of the national movement, has meant that there are now two of everything—two statelets, two security services and at least two visions of what and even where a future Palestine should be. President Mahmoud Abbas, whose mandate expired years ago, lacks the authority and legitimacy to make consequential decisions on behalf of his people, let alone decisions pertaining to a final status deal—and so, he has systematically preferred to avoid rather than make them, his presidency becoming an exercise in inertness.
Then there is the matter of the U.S. administration’s peace plan. With a new government in place and Trump apparently seeking to draw attention away from the impeachment hearings by more actively engaging on the foreign policy front, the odds of it putting out the plan will rise. Much of what has been written about the proposal and its purportedly pro-Israeli bias has been speculation—albeit speculation based on the track record of an administration that has shown little compunction in moving unashamedly toward right-wing Israeli positions, breaking from well-established bipartisan stances and jettisoning U.S. relations with the Palestinians.
Yet even assuming the conjecture has been wrong and that the plan includes such heresies as acceptance of a Palestinian state or of a Palestinian capital in parts of Jerusalem, the idea that it can come remotely close to what Palestinians—from the most pragmatic to the most hard line— will accept is pure fantasy. There is not a chance the proposal will go as far toward addressing Palestinian requirements as did the parameters suggested by President Bill Clinton in 2000, the ideas put forward by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2007, or the plan presented to Abbas by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014—all of which were rejected by the Palestinian leadership. There is not a chance that same leadership will accept less today than what it turned down when it had more confidence in the U.S.
Some wild cards could come into play. At 85, Abbas may leave the political scene in the near future, triggering a scramble for power and a new Palestinian leadership configuration. Palestinians in the West Bank could join their many brethren around the region and rise up—against the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian Authority’s rule, or both. But it is hard to see either event triggering a short-term breakthrough in the peace process; in fact, both could push preoccupation with a negotiated settlement even further into the background. For now, the upshot is that neither the bottom-up approach of improvements on the ground nor the top-down approach of U.S. proposals will move the needle.
If anything, the more things change in Israel, the more Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will remain the same. Therein lies the paradox: Perpetuating the status quo in Israeli politics— meaning Netanyahu’s continued premiership—arguably was the likeliest way to break the logjam and transform both Israeli-Palestinian and U.S.-Israeli dynamics. Netanyahu in power meant scant prospects of material betterment for the Palestinians, of revived negotiations, let alone of a two-state solution; it meant a greater potential for ever more provocative steps such as annexation of parts of the West Bank, thereby forcing a conversation about alternative ways of approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It also meant a downward spiral in relations between the Israeli government and important segments of the American public—especially among a younger generation of Democrats and American Jews, alienated by Netanyahu’s overt pro-Republican partisanship; his affinity for authoritarian and illiberal leaders worldwide and inflammatory anti-Arab rhetoric at home; and his kowtowing to his Orthodox coalition partners and ignoring the concerns of American Jews on any number of religious issues, such as a more egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. All of which made it at least conceivable to start a more open and honest debate over how the U.S. should involve itself in the dispute.
There have been some incipient signs of late of such an evolution: in poll numbers that show a growing percentage of Americans, notably younger ones, supporting a more evenhanded U.S. approach and open to alternatives to a two-state solution; in the increasing number of Democratic officials prepared to criticize Israel; and in the willingness of several of the party’s presidential candidates to debate topics not long ago considered off-limits, such as linking the provision of military assistance to Israel with the uses to which it is put. In this sense, the principal asset of those hoping for a more radical break from the past was the person embodying all that they reject—Netanyahu.
His expected departure from the political scene suggests that this theory, interrupted midexperiment, is unlikely to be tested anytime soon. Instead, with a more broadly respectable Israeli prime minister, the pendulum could well swing back to where it had been from the early 1990s onward: resumption of a peace process that is mostly process and no peace; a focus on steps on the ground that improve the conditions of the occupation without ending it; and bipartisan support for a U.S. mediating role that tends to accommodate existing realities rather than challenge them.
A happier face will be put on negotiations, on the occupation, and on Israeli-U.S. relations. Netanyahu’s exit, ironically, could be his final, unwitting gift to the goal he pursued and that his prolonged tenure would have endangered: ensuring—at least in American eyes— that the unsustainable status quo is still sustainable.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.