Does it matter who is prime minister of Israel? On the face of it, you would think so. For years now, the Israeli electorate has been divided almost exactly down the middle into a hawkish camp and a dovish camp. When the hawks are in power, the doves hurl vicious insults. When the doves are in power, the hawks speak darkly of Armageddon.
When power is up for grabs, they fight bitterly, which is precisely what they are doing at the moment. Since Ehud Barak tendered his resignation last weekend, triggering elections for prime minister—held separately from parliamentary elections in Israel—the entire political class appears to have disappeared into the haze of smoke-filled rooms. I will spare you the intimate details: You can read them in Ha'aretz, the normally approachable Israeli newspaper of record, whose political reporting has this week become so complex as to be unreadable. Suffice it to say that Barak's opponent may well be Benjamin Netanyahu, despite the fact that Bibi (who came rushing back from an American lecture tour to declare his candidacy) is neither a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament—a requirement for the prime minister—nor the leader of Likud, the main opposition party. For him to run, the Knesset has to change the Israeli Constitution and Likud has to hold special leadership elections, not exactly minor hurdles. Indeed, when you get into the various parliamentary deals and counterdeals that will be necessary to make Bibi a candidate—the involvement of the various small parties, the machinations behind the scenes—the whole thing becomes very complicated indeed. And until it is resolved, no one will be able to talk about anything else—not peace, not the Palestinians, not the future.
But I ask again: All this negotiating, all this politicking, all this activity—does it matter? Given the amount of energy that will be poured into these elections, a surprising number of people think it doesn't. Certainly a lot of Palestinians think it doesn't. According to the newspaper Al-Quds, "the difference between Likud and Labour, Barak and Netanyahu … is, in fact, a choice between two equally bitter alternatives." Hanan Ashrawi, the telegenic Palestinian negotiator, also thinks it doesn't matter: Barak's plans for the future of the West Bank, she told one newspaper, are no different from Likud's anyway.
Way over on the other side of the political spectrum, Daniel Pipes is of the same belief. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Pipes, one of the best— and most conservative—of American Middle East commentators, dismisses the importance of the elections on the grounds that in either case, "voters will likely not have a real choice about the paramount issue: the way their government approaches the Palestinians." His view is that both Barak's government and Likud under Netanyahu have offered the Palestinians land without demanding anything concrete in return, in the (naive) hope that they will create good will all around.
In fact, although Ashrawi and Pipes couldn't be more different in their perceptions of the situation, their comments reflect the same reality: Whoever is prime minister of Israel will face precisely the same issues within precisely the same parameters. Whoever leads the country will have precisely the same unbelievably narrow space in which to maneuver. Both Bibi and Barak are extremely limited, both in what more the frustrated and angry Israeli public will allow them to concede and in what more they can demand from the frustrated and angry Palestinian leadership. If their plans for the future of the West Bank are the same, it's because they have to be the same. If their approach to the Palestinians is the same, it's because they have few other realistic options at the moment.
Certainly it isn't the case that either man could bring a truly fresh approach to the situation either. Plans to divide Jerusalem have been drawn up many, many times since 1967. Many more maps have been drawn of the West Bank. New maps—with new borders, miraculously acceptable to both sides—are not going to materialize out of the sky if Barak manages to scrape by and remain in office. Nor will the basic issues—which have been examined and re-examined, put in front of commissions, discussed ad infinitum in the Israeli press, the Arab press, everyone else's press—be in any way altered because Likud is back in charge.
For those in Israel or anywhere else who believe the return of Likud spells the end of peace, this might be a rather comforting thought: It doesn't matter who wins, peace is still possible.
But for those in Israel or anywhere else who hope a change of leadership will somehow bring an end to the terrible violence of recent months, this might be a rather depressing thought: It doesn't matter who wins, war is still likely.