Netanyahu's New Order

November 8, 2012 Topic: DemocracySociety Region: Israel

Netanyahu's New Order

Many of Netanyahu's positions reflect a broad public consensus.

When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets out of bed on November 11th, he will be the second-longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. Say what? Only Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, will have led the Jewish state longer.

Israeli politics, often derided as unpredictable, have experienced unprecedented stability under Netanyahu. Bibi quietly has overseen the longest serving government in over thirty years and the third-longest-serving government in Israeli history. Moreover, Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—already spawning the “Biberman” meme—recently announced that their two parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, would run on a joint list in the next election. Thus, the prime minister is virtually assured of remaining Israel’s prime minister with perhaps an even more durable coalition.

Netanyahu’s ability to forge a national consensus on Israel’s two most vexing security issues, Iran and the Palestinians, has eliminated the traditional security divide among Israeli parties, leading to fewer coalitional disputes that could bring down his government. No longer internally torn apart by existential security or territorial issues, Israel may be rewinding the clocks to a pre-Oslo era where its two largest parties routinely gathered over fifty percent of the vote.

Israeli politics long have been known for their volatility. In only her sixty-fourth year of existence, Israel has had thirty-two governments, nineteen different parliaments and twelve prime ministers. Every Israeli parliament has begun with at least ten parties, even as the qualifying threshold for seats has been progressively raised from 1 percent until 1992, 1.5 percent until 2003 and 2 percent currently. Although the large, historical Zionist parties, the left-wing Labor and right-wing Likud, continue to be the largest vote getters, they have been forced into coalitions with lesser-sized, single-interest parties in order to maintain power.

As a result, these small parties consistently hold the lifeline of the government in their hands. In 2006, only the incorporation of the seven-seat Pensioners Party (Gil) guaranteed that Ehud Olmert’s government would remain in power, and even Netanyahu’s current government is dependent on the support of United Torah Judaism and The Jewish Home, two religious parties of five seats and three seats respectively. Major issues concerning the nature of the Israeli state, such as military-service exemptions for Israeli Arabs, the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population or a comprehensive reform of the political system, remain unresolved because the small yet coalition-making parties are unwilling to back measures that would effectively reduce their future political power.

In the face of these challenges, Netanyahu has fashioned a consensus on the two dominant security issues facing Israel, reestablishing great stability at the top of Israel’s political scene. Time and again, the prime minister has made clear that Israel, one way or another, would not live with a nuclear bomb in the hands of this Iranian regime—a position that mimics long-standing Israeli actions when faced with similar threats.

Despite vain attempts to differentiate himself from his one-time coalition partner, Kadima’s leader Shaul Mofaz also cites Iran as Israel’s biggest security threat, agreeing with Netanyahu that an Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable. Yair Lapid, Israel’s new political kid on the block, goes even further : he argues that the only way to stop the Iranian nuclear program is regime change, and, if it comes to it, Israel will have to bomb. Shelly Yachimovich, the energetic new Labor leader, also agrees that a nuclear Iran would make Israel unlivable, criticizing U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey for making comments that harmed Israel’s deterrent capability . Even if these three parties were to form a “super-centrist” party, there is little daylight between them and “Biberman” over what Israel’s policy towards Iran should be.

Similarly, on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu has articulated a consensus that has no credible, popular alternative. Beginning with his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech , Netanyahu has affirmed his government’s vision for a future Palestinian state but with important stipulations that have widespread support within Israel. In his proposal, the future Palestinian state would be demilitarized, would be unable to conclude treaties with Israeli enemies and would contain a transitional Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley for some time. Palestinian refugees would be resettled outside of Israel, large settlement blocks would remain part of Israel and the Jewish state’s capital, Jerusalem, would remain undivided. This proposal is nearly identical to that proffered by Lapid , who supports the incorporation of all the settlement blocks, including Ariel, which cuts deeper into the West Bank, as well as an undivided Jerusalem into Israel in any peace deal. Kadima’s position on the Palestinians is likewise largely indistinguishable; it has now twice sat in the same government as Lieberman, despite accusing him of being an extremist when it came to the Palestinians. Tellingly, Yachimovich, the flag bearer of what used to be known as the “peace camp,” has tried to rebrand Labor using social and economic issues and has backed Netanyahu’s recent reprisal actions against Hamas. With the Oslo process seen as a sheer failure in Israel, Netanyahu has staked out an unassailable domestic position such that no major party is rushing to dramatically distinguish itself from him as the central tenet of its electoral campaign.

As Israeli election season rears into high gear, the current government’s remarkable stability should not be quickly overlooked. Netanyahu’s ability to forge a national consensus on Israel’s two largest security issues, Iran and the Palestinians, again hassubmerged previously polarizing divisions and in doing so lead to the surfacing of societal and identity issues at the forefront of political discussion. If it merely replicated its current haul of forty-two seats, Likud Beiteinu would be the largest single vote getter in two decades, generating the possibility that the next Israeli government—led by Netanyahu—could be composed solely of national parties, rather than single-interest factions.

Gabriel Scheinmann is a Ph.D student at Georgetown University and a visiting fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.