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Israeli election downplays Palestinian issue

Sunday - 12/16/2012, 4:50am  ET

FILE - in this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 file photo, Israelis inspect damage at an apartment building after it was hit by a rocket fired by militants from Gaza Strip, in the israeli central city of Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv. 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 frustrations of the middle class and a widespread resentment of perks enjoyed by fervently devout Jews. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

AMY TEIBEL
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- 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.

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