Expectations were that Tuesday’s election would deliver to Benjamin Netanyahu the makings of an even more right-wing government than the one he leads now, a ruling coalition committed to expanding settlements, choking off any chance of a Palestinian state, intimidating leftist and Arab dissent and sneering at the UN, Europe and Obama. This expectation was based on the Likud’s having purged the last moderates from its ranks, the already wall-to-wall extremism of its junior partner, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), and the sudden popularity of newcomer Naftali Bennett, the ex-commando and high-tech millionaire, and his religious ultra-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home).
What happened was that while Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, as expected, polled very poorly, Habayit Hayehudi fell well short of the spectacular showing predicted by pollsters and journalists. Instead, the phenom of this election was first-time candidate and former media star Yair Lapid, whose centrist, socioeconomic party Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) finished second to Likud.
The vote did not represent a victory for the left, but it did signify a rejection of the right. It didn’t mean the Israeli public wants its leadership to hurry up and trade land for peace, but it does not want settlers and settlement to dominate national life, nor does it approve of alienating the president of the United States. The vote also signaled consumer fatigue with Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister longer than any predecessor except founding father David Ben-Gurion, and whose face, voice and messages are omnipresent in this country. Israelis want something new, something more hopeful, but beyond lower prices and an end to draft deferments and welfare for the ultra-Orthodox (the twin planks of Lapid’s campaign), they were much more articulate Tuesday about what they’re against – the status quo – than what they’re for.
Under Israel’s political system, it’s virtually certain that Netanyahu will form the next coalition government. Its senior partner would be the far-right, led by Likud. Based on Netanyahu’s and Lapid’s stated inclinations and the breakdown of the vote, the junior partner will be the center, probably led by Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Netanyahu’s only other option is a government of the far right and the ultra-Orthodox, which would turn half the country angrily against him, while deepening the West’s antipathy. It would also deepen the Palestinians’ despair, although this is not an issue for the country’s right wing or center.
In recent weeks France and Britain were reported to be waiting until after the Israeli election to put forward a European initiative for peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which have been stalled for the four years of Netanyahu’s outgoing government. With the election results seeming a vote against occupation and in favor of pragmatism, as well as a rebuke of Netanyahu, world leaders may be thinking that the time is ripe for Middle East diplomacy.
But, with this prime minister and this Likud, foreign pressure on the next Israeli government appears as unlikely to succeed as it did in this one. Netanyahu has seemed perfectly content without peace negotiations and eager to expand settlements despite the Palestinians’ and Western world’s objections – and he is the “liberal” of the current Likud. Even if he had an epiphany and decided to become a peacemaker, he could not drag the radical Knesset members in his party along with him. Ariel Sharon did that in the 2005 disengagement from Gaza—but Sharon was an irreplaceable vote-getter for his party. Netanyahu just ran Likud’s Knesset strength down from twenty-seven seats to twenty-one, leaving him very little leverage over party lawmakers, certainly not enough to move them toward a Palestinian state (which, again, he’s never been crazy about, in any event).
But even Lapid, the pragmatist, isn’t talking peace; it wasn’t an issue in his campaign. As for his opinions, he says he’s in favor of a Palestinian state but insists on Jerusalem remaining entirely under Israeli control, leaving none of it for a capital of Palestine. He unveiled his platform at a news conference in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, reinforcing his pledge that Ariel, a geographic finger in the eye of Palestinian statehood, would never be uprooted. The Palestinians have been rejecting such positions for decades; coming from Lapid, they don’t sound any more promising.
Yet, even if Lapid were to have his own epiphany and be ready to divide Jerusalem and uproot settlements extensively, the Likud, still the largest party in the Knesset, the party of the presumptive prime minister, remains the deal-breaker. And that’s not even taking into account Lieberman’s and Bennett’s parties, which could be asked to join the government, too.
So, while Netanyahu will likely feel constrained by public sentiment to refrain from announcing controversial new settlement projects (as he’s been doing with considerable frequency), he will be constrained by the right-wing extremists in Likud and likely other coalition partners from reversing course with a breakthrough to the Palestinians. A splitting-the-difference approach could encompass continuing with settlement expansion, just more slowly and quietly than during the last couple years.