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The high cost of Netanyahu’s victory

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/18/2015 - 10:16 am.

    America’s relationship with Israel can’t get any worse, and wont improve until Obama is replaced. He comes back to office owing a huge debt to the GOP that will be a very nice chip for the next President to have in his pocket.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/18/2015 - 09:58 pm.

      So you agree?

      That is is acceptable for our congress to work around the Elected president and with foreign dignitaries? In short you don’t believe in the constitution that the President is the chief executive, congress should be able to negotiate as they see fit if they disagree with the what was that “Commander and Chief” including taking direction from a foreign government leader?

  2. Submitted by John Edwards on 03/18/2015 - 11:22 am.

    The true cost of this election

    Can things get any worse for our feckless President on the international stage? In the Ukraine earlier this year Putin gave Obama in effect a political wedgie. Next, Obama sends his top minions to interfere with Israel’s election, and Bibi wins a decisive victory. The next 15 months can’t pass soon enough for our country.

  3. Submitted by stephen silberfarb on 03/18/2015 - 01:10 pm.

    What cost?

    Maybe I missed it but what is the high cost of Netanyahu’s reelection?

    I get that President Obama and much of the media would have preferred a different. It makes more sense to look at this decisive victory as a reflection about where much of Israel’s body politics. Maybe just maybe the Obama administration doesn’t know Israeli security concerns better than Israelis do? And if we’re talking about the Iran nuclear negotiations, it’s not just Israel — it’s Egypt Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others.

    The window for a two-state solution has been open since 1947. The Palestinian side has never been able to fully enter it and reach a final agreement. I doubt it’s closed now but nobody knows what Netanyahu’s unfortunate heated pre-election rhetoric rejecting a Palestinian state means going forward. But let’s not now make believe that but for Netanyahu there will be a two-state peace agreement.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/18/2015 - 01:58 pm.

    Showing his true colors

    Netanyahu did two things to win the election – promised not to allow a two-state solution (showing his past positions to be dishonest) and suggesting that the illegal theft of Arab lands for settlements would continue (ignoring international law). He also raised questions about whether the Arab citizens of Israel should be allowed to vote, playing the Israeli equivalent of the race card. And to top it off, he lectured the US government about how we cannot trust Iran. Is someone you think deserves our unwavering support?

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/18/2015 - 02:12 pm.

    There hasn’t been any coverage that I know of, but one cannot wonder if Obama’s meddling didn’t help Netanyahu. Israelis are proud people, and I cannot believe they would welcome the meddling of minions of a foreign President in their elections. Anyone heard anything?

  6. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 03/18/2015 - 08:39 pm.

    Obama’s meddling?

    What’s that about? I’ve seen nothing about any “meddling” in Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Post, or Ynet reporting on the Israeli election. I could have missed something, but if it was there, it would have warranted headlines.

    By “meddling” in the election, you must mean John Boehner providing Netanyahu a campaign photo-op speaking to the U.S. Congress a couple of weeks before the voting. That was the point of your first comment, wasn’t it?

    As for pride, all peoples are proud and most wouldn’t welcome outside meddling in any of their country’s normal activities.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/19/2015 - 06:29 am.

      It was widely covered, but here’s the Haaretz piece you couldn’t find.

      http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel-election-2015/.premium-1.639158

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/19/2015 - 10:19 am.

        Just to clarify

        The article is about a former Obama campaign operative working in Israel. You do know what “former” means, correct?

      • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 03/19/2015 - 10:31 am.

        A campaign adviser isn’t Obama

        The Ha’aretz article (in January 2015) says, “With the help of American money and a former campaign adviser to President Barack Obama … Jeremy Bird, a 36-year-old American political strategist who worked for Obama.” The article says Mr. Bird worked with an Israeli organization that was campaigning against Netanyahu.

        So by your illogic, if a former company’s employee hired by a different company years later, his former CEO did that new job.

        To quote Sid, “Unb’lievable!”

  7. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 03/19/2015 - 04:57 am.

    Anyone…..

    who thought Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress was a campaign speech needs to listen to it instead of speculating.

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