Two elections. Two incumbents on the ropes who managed to pull off strong victories, in part by scaring voters.
The result? Two of America’s closest allies are no nearer — and probably further than ever — from solving existential challenges.
When David Cameron and his Conservative party confounded everyone — including themselves — by winning an outright majority in Britain’s parliamentary elections last week, they followed in the footsteps of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. Recall that Netanyahu was thought to be in big trouble in March, but emerged from elections with what he proclaimed a “great victory.”
But here’s the thing: Despite the strong showing by the Israeli right in March, Netanyahu finally finished putting together a governing majority last week, just a few hours before the deadline. Even after he negotiating away control of important ministries, he was only able to secure the support of the minimum number he needs to govern — 61 out of 120 members of parliament.
He alienated just about everyone else.
He angered the Obama administration by declaring on the day before the vote that there would be no Palestinian state if he were reelected. If anything, the criticism was even more scathing for his election-day Facebook post declaring that Israeli Arabs were voting in large numbers. Many saw it as racist, a panicky bid to drive right-wing turnout.
It worked, but at the expense of losing some allies. One, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join the new coalition. That put Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state and supports increased settlement in the West Bank, in position to make or break Netanyahu’s new government.
One peace activist declared the government resulting from the negotiations to be “the most clearly articulated, narrowest, most right-wing, most religious and most nationalistic government ever assembled in Israel.”
Analysts say Netanyahu is still trying to add to his coalition. But in the words of one quoted by the New York Times, “Nobody in his right mind believes that this will hold for even a short time.”
So don’t expect this new government to make progress on relations with the Palestinians, or the rest of the region.
In Britain, Cameron thumped the opposition Labor party and came away with a majority, 331 of the 650 seats in Parliament.
But the political landscape has changed in a way that will make it hard to maintain two pillars of British identity: As a united kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and as a member of the European Union.
The most immediate problem is Scotland’s 308-year-old union with England. In what had been a Labor bastion for decades, the pro-independence Scottish National Party won 56 of 59 seats, and will be the third-largest party in Parliament.
Instead of veteran Labor politicians, Scotland will be represented, among others, by the owner of a chain of comedy clubs, a 20-year-old university student who tweeted about wanting to castrate a Labor candidate — and a breast cancer surgeon whose constituents considered voting against her so she would continue to do her day job back home.
Cameron would have a tough time in Scotland in the best of circumstances. The Tories’ fiscal policies are anathema to many Scots, who favor more spending and more services.
But the Conservatives only made matters more difficult for themselves by portraying the Scots as a bad influence on Labor. The Tories argued that Labor couldn’t be trusted to maintain Britain’s economic recovery – much less a minority Labor government that would depend on the SNP to stay in power.
This is the way the left-leaning Guardian put it: “The prime minister will face urgent pressure to woo the disaffected Scots or lose them forever.”
But the Conservatives need to watch their other flank, too.
Cameron already has promised a referendum on remaining in the EU — which he says he supports with modifications. He’ll have to fend off the UK Independence Party, which espouses a kind of anti-immigration, anti-EU, blue-collar English nationalism. UKIP won 13 percent of the vote (nearly three times more votes than the SNP won), but because of the way the British election system works, it took only one Parliamentary seat.
To oversimplify a bit, the SNP wants Scotland to be in the EU, with or without England. UKIP wants to be out of the EU, with or without the Scots.
Cameron can, and will, cite what the Scots and English have accomplished together. Tories are certain to argue that Scots will be worse off economically if they leave the union. But as Americans are well aware, politics are not always rational. That’s particularly true when it comes to questions of independence and nationhood.