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Takeaways From Israel’s Election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won his fourth election last night in surprising fashion. He outdistanced the polls, including the exit polls in the waning hours of voting and won a decisive victory over the Zionist Union and Isaac Herzog. Here are some quick and initial takeaways from the results.

A huge victory for the Right

Even though the right wing/religious bloc in the Knesset didn’t grow, the right gained considerable power relative to
BenjaminNetanyahuthe last Knesset. The last government included two centrist parties, Yesh Atid, and Hatnuah. Yesh Atid actually was the biggest single party in it, with Likud having joined with Avigdor Lieberman’s party to gain a decisive lead in the 2013 elections. Hatnuah, though small, was very important to the coalition, as its head, Tzipi Livni was the fig leaf over the right wing that negotiated with the Palestinians.

This coalition is going to have a very different character. It is quite possible that Netanyahu will get the fully right-wing coalition he wants. It is very possible that the most moderate party in it will be Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu party. Kahlon is at best lukewarm on the two-state solution, although he has been critical of Netanyahu’s refusal to maintain negotiations. He probably described his view best when he said he supported Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. That’s the one Bibi just repudiated in the last days of the campaign.

Two States and Where America and American Jews Stand

No doubt, Netanyahu will try to walk back his rejection of a Palestinian state of any kind once he forms his new government. He can’t walk it back too far, given the nature of his coalition, but will seek just enough to allow people to believe that it is still possible under his watch if they so desire.

But given that very few were ever taken in by his Bar-Ilan speech, where he gave the most tepid support he could to two states, anyone who is serious about ending the conflict has to ask themselves where they stand now and what sort of policies must be pursued. The old policy is clearly a round peg for the square hole of Israel’s position.

Three sectors in particular must ask this question: mainstream Republicans who still hold on to George W. Bush’s outline; Democrats across the spectrum; and the mainstream of the International Jewish community.

Republicans have clung virtually as a unit to Bibi. Are they willing to continue to do so if that means, by definition, opposing a two-state solution? In 2012, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution supporting Israeli rule over all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Rivers. But this had little effect on elected officials, who distanced themselves from it when asked. That won’t be so easy if Bibi is perceived, correctly, as staunchly opposing two states.

Democrats have a starker dilemma. Opposition to a two-state solution, not to mention Netanyahu’s right-wing orientation on many other issues, clearly puts him outside the lines for almost all Democrats. But until Bibi started interfering in American partisan politics, they’ve been able to look past those differences as if they weren’t there. That won’t work now, but they will face considerable domestic pressure to do just that.

The same can be said for the American Jewish community. Divisions within the influential community are growing, and the tactics used by those who still wish to march in lock-step with Israel are becoming increasingly draconian and visible. That process is already underway, and this election will only accelerate it.

The choice before all these groups is not a one- or two-state solution, but whether or not Israel is going to allow Palestinians the basic rights, freedoms, and dignities that all of us expect and take for granted. From the most moderate to most radical analysis of how to resolve this conflict, that is what separates a supporter of peace from an opponent. And that is the question that these communities will have to resolve.

The Stark Choice For the International Community

At this point, there is no alternative in the realm of diplomacy to a two-state solution. The current period is one where new ideas, if they can be sold to the international community, could come to the fore, but so far, despite the attempts of some supporters of a bi-national or single secular state, they have not succeeded in penetrating the international discourse.

If Israel is going to refuse to seriously consider a two-state solution, then, the United States, United Nations, Arab League, European Union and any other international actors have a clear choice in front of them: either pack it in and give up on this issue or press Israel in unprecedented ways to concede on a two-state solution based on the generally recognized parameters (’67 borders with some swaps, shared Jerusalem, an agreed upon resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue).

The Obama Administration

The hostility between Obama and Bibi continues unabated. The White House is waiting until the last possible moment to extend its obviously reluctant congratulations. There is no doubt the relationship will continue to be strained.

On Iran, Bibi’s words to Congress could take on a little more weight in light of his victory, but on the whole very little should change as a result of the election. Obama needs to start making the case to the American public that this is a good deal, and he needs to start doing that now. But that’s no different from before.

It would be easy to be cynical, given the history of U.S.-Israel relations and Obama’s own non-confrontational style, that the United States will really press Israel. But Obama has very little to lose. Democrats will all be distancing themselves from his foreign policy in 2016, and his days as an elected official are done after that. He is certainly going to push hard on Iran. It is true that the American public recognizes Iran as a U.S. security issue. They do not view the occupation in the same way, even though it too presents serious security concerns for the United States.

The reality, however, is that without significant pressure, unprecedented pressure from the US, Israel will not move, not under Bibi. And increasing tensions, especially the possibility of lost exports to Europe, could move the Israeli electorate away from Bibi and even lead to early elections. Obama knows all this. The combination of his second term status and the rift on Israel Netanyahu opened up and later exacerbated by declaring his opposition to two states, puts Obama in an unusually advantageous position to take some bold steps to press Israel that would usually politically unfeasible.

That doesn’t mean he will take those steps. The forces opposing such actions are strong. But the opportunity is as good as it is likely to get in the foreseeable future.

The Overview

This wasn’t a referendum on Netanyahu, as many characterized it. This was a referendum on where the country should go, more centrist or more right. Netanyahu remains an unpopular and vulnerable leader, but he also remains the most popular of an unpopular bunch. In the end, Netanyahu won by waving the Arab boogeyman and saying that “droves” of Arabs were going to vote him out and gutting his right wing opponents by telling their voters that if they didn’t vote for Likud, Labor would rule again.

What the election did show was that the country is deeply divided, but that the trend of a rightward tilt continues. The solid performance of the Joint List was significant, but they drew a lot of voters away from the only fully left-wing Zionist party, Meretz, which barely survived.

Israel’s international isolation will continue to grow, and whether that growth is steady or accelerated will depend on both how much more brazen Netanyahu becomes and how much the U.S. and Europe are willing to tolerate before they take actions Israel will feel. It is not a hopeful scenario on any level.