By ILAN BERMAN, WORLD AFFAIRS JOURNAL—
The Israeli electorate has spoken. After a bitterly acrimonious political campaign, and an election on March 17th that saw the highest voter turnout (72.3 percent) in recent memory, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has received a reinvigorated mandate to govern.
That outcome was almost completely unexpected. On the morning of election day, conventional wisdom in both the US and Israel was that the center-left Zionist Union (ZU) bloc would be the runaway winner, routing Netanyahu’s Likud Party and ushering in a new era in Israeli politics. By that afternoon, the polls had tightened into a virtual dead heat between Likud and the ZU, leading one observer to wryly comment that “trying to be an expert in Israeli politics is hazardous to your professional health.” By the following morning, Netanyahu had scored a stunning come-from-behind victory to claim an unprecedented fourth term as prime minister.
The electoral math is complicated, but it’s already possible to draw some broad conclusions about the impact the election will have on Israeli politics and foreign policy.
1. A more conservative, consolidated government. Netanyahu is undoubtedly a conservative politician, but his previous government was quite diverse. In the last Israeli election (which took place in 2013), Netanyahu’s Likud Party had to merge with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu faction in order to build a significant electoral bloc. Then they had to caucus with Yair Lapid’s upstart centrist Yesh Atid party and two smaller factions (Habayit Hayehudi and Hatnua) in order to claim the majority of the 120 seats in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, needed for a ruling coalition.
This time, however, Likud itself received 29 seats—nearly half those necessary to govern. And while Netanyahu is still in the process of putting together his coalition, the smart money is on him gaining the necessary political partners almost exclusively from Israel’s right. The end result will be a more conservative coalition, and likely a more stable one, than existed previously.
2. A moribund peace process. In the final leg of his electoral campaign, Netanyahu returned to the Palestinian question. In what appeared to be a reversal of his previous position from several years ago favoring a “two state” solution, he told voters that a Palestinian state wouldn’t materialize on his watch. Netanyahu’s comments framed the topic—a perennial political football in Israel—as nothing short of a security imperative. “I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” the prime minister told voters on the eve of the election.
That view may be a product of the recent summer 2014 Gaza war, which left many in Israel disillusioned about the possibility of ever finding a peace partner among the Palestinians. Or it may reflect the recognition that the Palestinians’ traditional allies, the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf, are drifting into alignment with Jerusalem as a result of common fears of a nearly nuclear Iran—a state of affairs that will serve to dampen Arab support for the Palestinian cause.
True, Netanyahu appears to have softened his position since. In a post-election interview with NBC, the premier insisted that he hadn’t fundamentally reversed his support for a “realistic” two-state solution. But the electoral numbers suggest that, whatever the current rhetoric, a long-term hardening of the Israeli position vis-à-vis the Palestinians is likely. That’s decidedly bad news for the White House, which was hoping that a new government in Israel would be a good deal more amenable to jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
3. Continued divergence on Iran. Netanyahu made waves earlier this month when he traveled to Washington to warn a joint session of Congress about the dangers of a “bad deal” with Iran. The move was seen as a public repudiation of the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate a compromise over Iran’s nuclear program. The White House hoped that Netanyahu’s ouster would alter this equation, and usher in a more compliant Israeli government. They had reason to think so; a key plank of the ZU’s campaign platform was to mend badly frayed diplomatic ties with the United States, not least by adopting a more supportive attitude toward the unfolding nuclear negotiations with Iran.
But that’s not what happened. In many ways, the Israeli election was a referendum on Netanyahu’s depiction of Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state. It’s a contest the Israeli premier won handily, providing him with a mandate for an even more independent policy on Iran—and, potentially, for unilateral action in response to the Iranian nuclear threat as well. Needless to say, that’s a recipe for continued conflict with a White House committed to compromise with Tehran.
4. Turbulence ahead in US-Israeli ties. Diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Washington have seen their share of ups and downs since the formal institution of the strategic relationship between the two countries in the early 1980s. Even so, it’s fair to say that the current political environment is the most fraught in the history of the bilateral affair. The Obama administration has made no secret of its dislike for Netanyahu, and administration-linked political operatives allegedly worked to unseat him ahead of the March 17th polls (now reportedly the subject of a bipartisan congressional investigation in Washington).
That’s something that Netanyahu isn’t likely to forgive or forget. And while a multitude of issues—from foreign aid to missile defense to counterterrorism—will help prevent a fundamental breakdown of ties, it’s reasonable to expect an even more acrimonious and volatile bilateral relationship than prevailed before, at least on the political level. Israeli analysts, in fact, are betting on it.
In other words, it’s time to buckle up. The remainder of President Obama’s term in office will be a bumpy ride for the American-Israeli partnership.