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In a welcome result, Israel moves towards the center
In many ways, the results of Tuesday’s Knesset (parliamentary) elections in Israel proved a relief to Americans supportive of the Jewish state but concerned about the radicalization of its political discourse and its pursuit of shortsighted and self-destructive policies toward Palestinians. Bucking a number of polls that had shown a wide advantage for the right wing and religious parties, Israelis elected a surprisingly heterogeneous Knesset, the control of which will be hotly contested and unstable.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is almost certain to remain at his post, saw his unified nationalist Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party plummet to 31 seats out of 120. The two parties combined for 42 seats before the merger was announced. Also encouraging was the limited seats won by Naftali Bennett’s far-right national-religious HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home) list, which will likely finish with 12 seats, fewer than most pundits had predicted. Bennett, who made a small fortune selling his software startup and serves in one of the Israeli Defense Force’s most prestigious commando units, had mounted an effective attack on Netanyahu’s right flank, dismissing the notion of a Palestinian state and instead proposing to annex the majority of the West Bank, leaving the most densely populated sections in a noncontiguous archipelago of Palestinian “autonomous areas” connected by bridges and tunnels.
The big winner of the right wing’s lackluster showing was Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which garnered an unexpected 19 seats and could play kingmaker in coming negotiations to form a governing coalition. Lapid, a former TV host, campaigned as a representative of Israel’s secular middle-class (the “center-center,” as he refers to it), and has mainly focused on ending preferential treatment, most notably an exemption from the military draft and housing subsidies, for the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community.
The social-democratic Labor party, led by Shelly Yachimovich and smaller left wing parties, including former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s pro-two-state solution HaTanuah party and the far-left Meretz list, also exceeded expectations. The coalition that will emerge will probably be made up of Netanyahu, Bennett, and Lapid’s parties, as well as any smaller parties that are willing to join on their terms. Shas, the Sephardi Haredi party, may be left out of the coalition for the first time in years.
Now, you are probably wondering how this upheaval will affect the comatose peace process with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, and even with so much still uncertain, the answer is a resounding “not much” for several reasons. First, there is little pressure coming from any segment of Israeli society to immediately pursue a negotiated two-state peace with the Palestinians. Surprising as it may be to American ears, the Palestinian question, which carries existential implications for the Zionist project, simply was not an issue in this campaign. The days of peace marches in Tel Aviv are long over, crushed under the weight of the Second Intifada and Gazan rockets, not to mention years of successful delegitimization from the right. Even the Labor party, which spearheaded the Oslo Process throughout the 1990s, conspicuously avoided staking out a position on the West Bank at all. And though broad majorities of Israelis continue to support the principle two states for two peoples, even larger segments believe it impossible to implement.
Coalition politics and intraparty shifts will also constrict any movement forward with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, who has at times shown willingness to negotiate with the PLO, if not take positive steps on the ground, will find it much more difficult to satisfy Western demands for progress as long as HaBayit HaYehudi is in the coalition. Bennett has promised to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state at all costs and will be unlikely to go along with even token negotiations that are unlikely to bear fruit. Lapid, for his part, has outlined terms for any two-state deal, namely the retention of all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, that are a non-starter for Palestinians.
Even if Netanyahu were to restart negotiations—an unlikely prospect—Lapid would almost certainly be satisfied with the mere resumption of the process and would not push for a final status deal. As for Netanyahu’s party, it has moved far to the right since the last round of elections, to the degree that every single Likudnik elected this year is on record as supporting either full or partial annexation of the West Bank.
But while this government is unlikely to pursue any renewed peace initiative with the Palestinians, there is no guarantee it will be around for very long. Any possible coalition will be unstable, as conflicts over the relationship between synagogue and state and economic issues split along different lines from security and territorial concerns. Governments in Israel almost never last the full four years and there is no reason to believe this one will be any different. If diplomatic pressure comes to a head in a tangible way for Israelis, or if Netanyahu proves unable to handle the competing demands of his coalition, we could see new elections. If so, we can only hope the Israeli shift to the center signifies a long-term trend and not a one-off event.