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The high cost of Netanyahu’s victory

Rather than signifying a “great victory,” the prime minister’s win on Tuesday is unlikely to make Israel any easier to govern.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waving to supporters at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Amir Cohen

For an election coming at a time of deep anxiety about the most basic issues facing the nation, Israel’s parliamentary vote ended up leaving the aftertaste of a desperate – and successful — bid for political survival.

It will take many days — probably weeks — before all the votes are counted, the deals are cut and a new government is in place. But it seems clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned enough voters in the campaign’s final days to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

Give him credit for his political skills. Rather than signifying the “great victory” he declared via Twitter after the polls closed Tuesday, however, the election is unlikely to make Israel any easier to govern. If anything, the tenor of his campaign will make differences with the Obama administration over Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians even worse. Relations with Israel’s sizable Arab minority will be both trickier and more significant.

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Netanyahu, seeking to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, faced a reenergized center-left movement led by Isaac Herzog, worries about the economy, security and foreign policy, and a good percentage of the electorate that was simply fed up with him. Turnout was impressive – around 72 percent, four points higher than the last nationwide vote.

Final polls had suggested Netanyahu’s Likud was trailing. But once in the voting booth, Israelis often choose security. Likud won about 30 seats in parliament compared to 24 for Herzog’s Zionist Union. Netanyahu should once again be able to patch together the coalition of at least 61 seats he needs to form a government.

But that result came at a high cost.

Two weeks before the vote, there was the dramatic speech to the U.S. Congress at the invitation of Speaker John Boehner, warning about the danger of a deal with Iran. While the address was largely praised as a work of speechcraft and theater, it lacked new ideas and worsened Israel’s relations with its most important patron, the U.S.

Critics charged it was essentially a campaign speech.

In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu also declared there would be no Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister, a reversal of a vague commitment to a two-state solution he had made six years earlier. While that pledge might have helped him draw some voters away from smaller right-wing parties, it only increases the confrontation with the Obama administration and a number of Western European countries over Netanyahu’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians said it would only encourage them to push harder through diplomacy and international organizations.

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Then, he accused unnamed foreign governments and leftwing organizations of trying to oust him. Opponents charged that an election day Facebook post declaring that Israel Arabs were voting in large numbers was racist, and a panicked effort to boost right-wing turnout.

Now Netanyahu can start to focus on how he deals with the mess.

The Obama administration won’t be happy with this result, but is likely to tread cautiously as it watches the post-election coalition-building play out. It’s not that Herzog would have pursued vastly different foreign and security policies. If he had won, his margin would have been narrow and he would have been hemmed in politically. Regardless, this analysis suggests that on some important issues he doesn’t differ dramatically from Netanyahu.

He probably would have been less confrontational, though, a welcome change that eventually might have made a difference.

Some observers dismiss the suggestion that anything Netanyahu said or did during the campaign should be considered more than an election tactic. His comments on a Palestinian state, for instance, were “written on ice on a very hot day,” in the words of commentator Nahum Barnea.

But even if that’s true, Netanyahu will have to spend at least part of his next term undoing — or at least clarifying — what he did and said to get reelected. In other words, marking time.

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Perhaps the most intriguing results of this election will be in the nitty-gritty of how Israeli democracy functions, and how that influences the character of the country.

As Bradley Burston wrote for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Netanyahu burned other right-wing parties in a desperate bid to build support for Likud. These are the same partners he’ll now have to try to entice into a coalition.

Small parties often are able to gain influence far exceeding their vote totals, winning policy concessions or control of important government ministries in exchange for joining the governing coalition. This time, several of those small parties barely survived.

One of the most intriguing developments centered on former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline Yisrael Beiteinu party and the Arab minority.

A bill sponsored by Lieberman raised the minimum number of votes necessary for a party to enter parliament. In Burston’s analysis, it was based on the assumption that few Israeli Arabs would vote, and that Arab parties would never unite.

The result? Reports suggest Lieberman’s party barely cleared the hurdle. And the Arabs? Spurred by the prospect of being excluded, they ran a joint ticket and did surprisingly well. It will be the third-largest party in the new parliament.