Israeli vote reveals political weakness

Israel's election results show a deeply divided society - and suggest a way ahead for the Palestinians.

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Jobs, rent and food: these are the issues that sent Israelis to the polls this week. The occupation of Palestinian lands on their doorstep and the uprisings that are reshaping the entire region were largely ignored. But the ostrich with its head stuck in the sand is hardly in a position of strength.

Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party has been humbled, so much so that it will cede seats to centre-left rivals. Mr Netanyahu probably still has the support to cobble together a governing coalition and continue as prime minister. But the party that did better than expected was Yesh Atid, led by the television personality Yair Lapid, who might force a centre-right coalition that would be less intransigent about peace talks.

Palestinians will know better than to hold their breath for genuine negotiations while Mr Netanyahu, and even more extreme ideologues, hold the whip hand. On the other hand, Mr Lapid has advocated a return to talks, but vague rhetoric means little while settlements continue apace and parties such as Jewish Home - which recommends the further annexation of Palestinian lands - remain candidates for a coalition government.

These results have a more sweeping message for Palestinians and their allies: Israelis are deeply divided and deeply ambivalent about the road that Mr Netanyahu has dragged them down for the last four years. So they should be. The country has abandoned even a pretence of morality in its sponsorship of illegal settlements, alongside the daily injustices and humiliations of the occupation. Israeli politics are so adrift that many cannot even debate the issue, instead focusing on the price of cottage cheese.

This is a crucial period in the Palestinian national struggle, during which a weakened Israel is overextending itself. It is vital that there is a coherent strategy of peaceful resistance, which relies first and foremost on Palestinian unity. Fatah and Hamas have given themselves until the end of the month to form a unity government. There are still considerable barriers to real unity, in particular a reconciliation of rival security forces, but there is more urgency than ever.

For the time being, many Israelis feel that they can ignore the occupation because they do not feel its consequences as so many Palestinians do. But ignoring an injustice does not make it go away. Through peaceful resistance and with the support of the international community, Palestinians need to put more pressure on an ambivalent Israel.