On April 9th, voters in Israel went to the polls in national elections that had long been anticipated and hotly debated. The vote was a referendum on the tenure of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now on track to become the country's longest-serving head of state. It was also a public vetting of sorts for Netanyahu's center-left opposition, headed by retired general Benny Gantz, which was hoping that voters were finally ready for a fresh face to represent Israeli politics.
One thing last week's election was definitely not about, however, was the Palestinians. In fact, the question of revived peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, once a top agenda item for virtually all of Israel's political parties, was conspicuously absent from the ballot box – and from the calculus of most voters.
How did this happen? Just a few years ago, a healthy majority of the Israeli electorate was squarely in favor of a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians, with the so-called "two state solution" the logical end point of those talks. But years of political stagnation in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, the numerous leadership failures of its aged leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and the ongoing extremism of the radical Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip have helped convince most Israelis that there's simply no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side. Internationally, too, the Palestinian issue has receded from public view as a result of a newfound consensus among the Sunni Arab states about the need for a united front against the Iranian threat – a coalition that has, over time, quietly expanded to include Israel as well.
The results are visible on Israel's political scene. Ahead of last week's election, just two of Israel's numerous political parties – the once-powerful left-wing Labor party and the smaller, dovish Meretz –made a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians a significant part of their campaign platforms. The rest talked about the issue only peripherally, if at all. The Palestinian issue, in other words, has lost the ability to "move the needle" on Israeli public opinion in the way it once could.
Nor, apparently, can it mobilize once-sympathetic voters. On election day, turnout by Israeli Arabs was noticeably lackluster. That was significant, because Israeli Arabs currently make up roughly one-fifth of the country's eight-million person population, which should provide them with proportional representation of some 24 seats in the country's 120 seat legislature, known as the Knesset. But, disillusioned over Arab parliamentarians who continue to trumpet the Palestinian cause while ignoring political and economic conditions for their core constituency, Israel's Arabs stayed home in significant numbers. The result was that the country's two Arab parties, Balad-UAL and Hadash Ta'al (the successor to Israel's old communist party), managed to secure just 10 mandates, less than a tenth of the total seats in the Knesset. Those modest returns make the domestic constituency in Israel actively agitating for a resumption of peace talks smaller still.
All of which has real-world implications. Now that Israel's elections are over, the Trump administration is poised to unveil its much-anticipated "deal of the century," which is aimed at restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The particulars of the White House plan have been a closely guarded secret, at least so far. But it's already apparent that its reception, both in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, depends greatly on popular perceptions in those places. And Israelis, at least, have made it abundantly clear that they no longer see the Palestinian issue as the organizing principle of their Middle East politics. Nor, increasingly, do they perceive progress on the Palestinian front as being a prerequisite for their country to normalize relations with the larger Arab world.