Israel's occupation is the elephant in the room

Are the upcoming elections in Israel crucial? Will the results -- a fourth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or a first for opposition leader Isaac Herzog -- change Israel's policy in a significant way?

As Israelis prepare to go to the polls, the answer seems to be negative.

Many observers in Europe and the United States seem to be under the impression that during Netanyahu's time in power, Israel was hijacked by right wing zealots -- and that Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union opposition party, is the man who will save the country and return it to the path of sanity.

But the fact is that when it comes to the most crucial question regarding the future of Israel and the Middle East -- what to do about the Palestinians -- the difference between the two candidates is negligible, a divergence that is short on substance but long on style and rhetoric.

While Netanyahu's insistence on Israel's continued ruling over millions of Palestinians is expressed in aggressive, often religious and nationalistic language, Herzog's justifications for doing the same thing would sound much softer and easier to digest in the Western world.

But at the end of the day, neither Netanyahu nor Herzog have any real intention to put an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Netanyahu says it clearly and openly; Herzog and his coalition partners only hint at it.

This whitewash has been so evident throughout the entire election campaign that a foreigner arriving in Israel would have had a hard time understanding anything about what is really going on here.

The main issues that have been discussed during the campaign are economic ones -- cost of living, housing prices, government oversight -- but even then, slogans and populist promises have largely replaced the in-depth debates we should be having.

But the topics that seem to have consumed most of the headlines range from pure gossip to scandals, some of them concerning the behavior of Netanyahu and his wife Sara. There was the "bottlegate" affair -- claims that the wife of the Prime Minister had pocketed cash from bottle recycling at their official residence. The Netanyahus say they reimbursed the government.

Israel is a country that is still looking for its way forward; one that lacks internationally recognized borders; one that has not yet decided whether it is a Western society or a Middle Eastern one; one that cannot decide whether it wants to be religious or secular, Jewish or bi-national.

All of these critical issues -- none of them decided on -- have been cast aside, ignored, covered up or denied by a country that has busied itself with the important business of recycled bottles at the prime minister's residence.

There is a big elephant in the room, but Israel is turning its back to it. There is a big elephant in the room, but Israel believes that if nobody talks about it, the elephant does not exist. This elephant is absent from the Israeli discourse on a day-to-day basis, and it is absent during elections -- a time when public discourse should be only be focused on what really matters.

The elephant in the Israeli room is the unending occupation of Palestinian territories, and nobody is talking about it. Most of the parties running in the elections have not even bothered to try to answer questions about what their plans are for the Palestinians.

But the occupation also continues to be a non-issue for too many ordinary Israelis, who know very little -- and care even less -- about the cruel reality for the millions of Palestinians who live without civil rights in the West Bank and who are kept under siege in Gaza.

For those who regard Herzog and the center-left as the great hope of this campaign, it is important to remember that it was the Israeli Labor Party who established the occupation and settlement projects in Palestinian territory.

Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin: Those Labor leaders, so beloved by the West, are the founding fathers of the most significant venture of modern Israel -- the illegal transfer of a Jewish population to stolen land.

It was a project whose purpose was to prevent any kind of equal division of the land, or a settlement with the Palestinians -- and as such it has been a great success story. Labor never had a real plan for the Palestinians, except to time and again renew the endless peace process, which may be the longest in history. This is still true now, on the eve of elections that stand a real chance of bringing the Zionist Union to power.

The more than 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have created what may be an irreversible reality, but Herzog's only answer to it is to get back to the negotiation table. In private circles he mentions five years as the time he needs to conclude the process.

There is no better indication that Herzog has no intention of ending the occupation any time soon. Numerous peace plans have already been worked out in great detail; all that is needed is for one courageous Israeli leader to implement any one of them. Herzog, at least at this stage, does not seem to be the one capable of doing this.

On Tuesday the "only democracy in the Middle East" will elect a new parliament and a new government, in what is frequently described as a celebration of "people power." But the reality is that here in Israel, it is only the masters who will vote and decide on the future -- not only for themselves, but for the millions of Palestinians who have for nearly half a century been living under their control, directly in the West Bank and indirectly in Gaza.

And yet, it seems, their fate is not a topic worthy of discussion. To call this a democracy in 2015 is rather problematic.

Gideon Levy is a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, which appears both in Hebrew and in English. He has covered the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for the last 25 years. His most recent book, The Punishment of Gaza, was published in 2010 by Verso. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

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