Netanyahu's Allies and Adversaries

March 20, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Israel

Netanyahu's Allies and Adversaries

What Obama needs to know about the new Israeli government.

As President Obama arrives in the Holy Land this week, he will be greeted by the same Israeli prime minister that has frustrated him since shortly after both men took office in 2009. Benjamin Netanyahu, also recently reelected, has just formed a new government—and the president and his advisors will find that anticipating how Israel’s new coalition might affect its foreign and defense policy is not easy.

The new government reflects the recent election’s confusing results. When added to other ambiguities of Israel’s electoral history, the results make it difficult to predict precisely what avenues the new government will take. The composition of the new Israeli government is the result of at least four new political realities.

1. The Moderate Stronghold

The enduring strength of the Israeli center is confirmed by the electoral success of the new Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party headed by the former TV anchor, Yair Lapid. While Lapid’s party is new, the phenomenon is not. In the 1977 elections, as a belated consequence of the 1973 War, Israel’s Labor Party lost the dominance it enjoyed during the country’s first three decades. The result was not a surge of the right but rather the creation of a constituency for a centrist party encompassing some 15 percent of the electorate.

This new bloc was captured by a succession of centrist parties: DASH, Shinui (“Change”), Hamerkaz (“The Center”), and Kadima (“Forward”), each lasting one or two electoral cycles. Inheriting Kadima—a party that the then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon created in 2005 after the disengagement from Gaza—Yesh Atid is simply the most recent representation of the center of Israel’s political map.

2. Likud’s Shift to the Right

The Likud party headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently moved further to the right. When Menachem Begin created the first Likud-led government in 1977, his party represented a coalition of the right wing Herut (“Liberty”) and the General Zionists, a truly liberal party. Since then, Likud has moved gradually but consistently rightward, a process accelerated when Sharon created Kadima, taking with him many of the more moderate and pragmatic members and leaders of Likud.

The results of the party’s primaries held on the eve of the recent elections reinforced this shift: centrists like Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, and moderates on certain foreign-policy issues like Benny Begin, were ousted and replaced by more right wing, even far-right politicians.

3. Alliances of Strange Bedfellows

The appeal of Yesh Atid and of the rejuvenated Labor Party under a committed socialist, Shelly Yechimovich, produced a higher than expected turnout by young, mostly first-time voters representing the country’s secular middle class. This brought about the most surprising result of the elections: a net loss of four to five seats by the block of right wing, orthodox and ultra-orthodox parties that comprised Israel’s outgoing coalition. Thus, Netanyahu was deprived the option of creating a stable narrow right-orthodox government, forcing him instead to create a center-right coalition.

In the post-election negotiations, Yesh Atid held strong cards. Netanyahu could not form a center-right coalition without its support. But then, in a series of tactical mistakes, he pushed a right-wing party—Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”), headed by his former assistant, Naftali Bennett—into an alliance with Yesh Atid. The alliance strengthened the bargaining positions of the two parties, allowing them to extract far-reaching concessions from Netanyahu—in cabinet and sub-cabinet appointments as well as in the policy sphere.

Yet Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi are strange bedfellows, representing entirely different constituencies and policy preferences: the first speaks for Israel’s secular-liberal centrists while the second represents its religious nationalists. Indeed, the two parties seem to agree primarily on only one issue: no more exemptions for ultra-orthodox and Arab citizens from national service; and no more subsidies that allow young ultra-orthodox Israelis to avoid work.

4. Lack of Foreign-Policy Debate

Neither Israel’s relations with its Palestinian neighbors nor any other foreign and security policy issue—from Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons to the implications of the tumultuous changes in Egypt and Syria—were debated in Israel’s recent elections. Two facets of these issues explain their absence: First, to varying degrees, Israelis do not think that their preferences are relevant to addressing them. This is most apparent in the case of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Rightly or wrongly, most Israelis do not see a real option of resolving this conflict under existing conditions. Thus, they regard quarreling over the terms of such a solution pointless. Instead, they turn their attention to domestic issues that directly impact their daily lives and—in contrast to the Palestinian issue—can actually be affected by their preferences.

Second, while Israelis clearly differ on many foreign and defense policy issues, these issues remain mostly non-partisan. For example, Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons were not debated in the recent elections, but this was not because Israelis regarded this issue as any less existential than in the past. Rather, the competing parties did not divide on foreign-policy questions. Lacking unified positions that distinguished them from one another—Labor did not have a different position than Likud regarding Iran or terror in the Egyptian Sinai—Israel’s parties avoided discussion of these issues altogether.

More Questions than Answers

What can be inferred from these realities about the future of Israeli politics?

In the Palestinian realm, with a robust center Israel is unlikely to take negative transformative steps such as the unilateral annexation of large swaths of the West Bank as proposed by Bennett and other members of his party.

At the same time, there is a prime minister who distrusts the Palestinians and leads a party that avoided any commitment to implementing a two-state solution. An important coalition partner—Habayit Hayehudi—is adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. With an even more robust Yesh Atid party that does not see a resolution of the conflict under terms remotely acceptable to the Palestinians as possible, urgent or desirable, it is exceedingly difficult to see Israel’s new government orchestrating a positive change in this realm.

The new minister of justice Tzipi Livni, who has been tapped to head future talks with the Palestinians, is unlikely to change this reality. Hardliners like Bennett avoided making their opposition to Livni’s post a deal-breaker, showing that they were convinced that it was meaningless. While Livni may yet surprise her detractors and initiate serious negotiations with the Palestinians, the odds are decisively against her. Without the unlikely cooperation of the IDF under the new hardline defense minister Moshe Yaalon, it would be difficult for Livni to staff any serious talks. And the Palestinians will yield nothing in negotiations with Livni unless they are convinced that Netanyahu’s government is serious about making a deal.

In the absence of such negotiations, all that can be expected from Israel’s new government in the Palestinian realm is continuous settlement expansion and the further nullifying of the two-state solution. Controlling the housing ministry, the Israel Land Authority and the Knesset’s finance committee, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party will be well positioned to pursue its annexationist designs. Yet even this trajectory has a silver lining: Lapid is committed to helping the secular middle class, so he is likely to instruct the finance ministry under his command—and particularly its all-powerful Budget Division—to remain vigilant against any effort to continue diverting a significant share of scarce resources to settlement construction. Anticipating resistance to such diversions, the new ultra-right housing minister, Uri Ariel, already stated that those who expect massive construction in illegal settlements will be disappointed.

Despite all the skepticism expressed here, should Netanyahu conclude a groundbreaking agreement with the Palestinians—even one that resolves only some aspects of the conflict—he will surely receive the requisite domestic support. Labor leader Yechimovich has already made this clear during the new Knesset’s opening session earlier this week, promising that her party will join the government in the event that any of its constituent members defect to oppose an agreement. This means that in the end a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians is for Netanyahu to pursue or avoid. No party or combination of parties would prevent Knesset approval of such a deal.

Would Israel’s new government decide to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations? It is impossible to tell. With the exception of Netanyahu and Yaalon, none of the seven ministers who have thus far been named as joining Israel’s new Security Cabinet were among the Octet—the eight-member kitchen cabinet that debated and made all the relevant decisions regarding Iran in Israel’s outgoing government. Only one of the other five members, Livni, was ever exposed to classified intelligence about Iran’s program. The new security cabinet’s other members—Lapid, Bennett, Gilad Arden and Yitzhak Aharonovich—are complete novices on the issue.

Who will be more persuasive in this new cohort? Netanyahu may continue to push for a more assertive Israeli stance as Iran’s nuclear program advances. At the same time, Israeli defense chiefs may continue to be wary of a risky military operation opposed by their American colleagues.

Similar question marks will defeat any effort to anticipate whether Israel’s new government will try to improve relations with Turkey. The appointment of Yaalon as defense minister is especially troubling since as a member of the Octet he reportedly opposed making the concessions required to achieve such a thaw. But in his new capacity Yaalon may be more exposed to pressures by the IDF and Israel’s defense industry to issue the apology that the Turks have been demanding ever since the May 2010 flotilla incident (when nine Turkish citizens were then killed in a clash with Israeli naval commandos as a Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara, attempted to break the siege of Gaza). In the coming months Yaalon may also encounter new opportunities for improving relations with Turkey; the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria and the possible rise of Jihadi groups will present new challenges to both countries.