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Bibi’s Big Surprise

Written by Moran Azoulay

Project Syndicate, March 18, 2015

NEW YORK – Binyamin Netanyahu proved the pollsters wrong – not once, but twice. In the weeks and days leading up to Israel’s election, his defeat was widely predicted. Then, in the hours after the vote, exit polls suggested parity between his Likud party and the center-left Zionist Union, led by his chief rival, Yitzhak Herzog, with a slight edge for the right-wing bloc. Several hours after the polls closed, it turned out that Likud was the big winner, gaining 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, compared to 24 for the Zionist Union.

As a result, Netanyahu will have no real difficulty in forming a right-wing government coalition. The kingmakers in the event of parity – the smaller parties and electoral lists in the center of the political spectrum – have lost most of their bargaining power.

It was a crucial election in two respects: The outcome reflected the Israeli electorate’s sharp turn to the right and has reinforced Netanyahu’s political dominance. As recently as 2006, Ehud Olmert had won an election in Israel on a dovish platform, pledging to extend Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to the West Bank. In the 2009 election, the Kadima party, under his successor, Tzipi Livni, received one seat more than Likud, but was unable to form a government coalition. Netanyahu did, and went on to win the 2013 election. Now he has won yet again.

The turn to the right derives from both structural and circumstantial factors. Israel’s right-wing parties draw support from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, West Bank settlers, and a large part of the Sephardic and Russian communities. When the center left won elections in the past two decades, it did so under a powerful security-oriented leader: Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Sharon (after his conversion), and Sharon’s successor, Olmert. Though Herzog and Livni – who formed the Zionist Union by merging Herzog’s Labor party and Livni’s Hatnuah party – possess several attractive qualities, they do not match the prototype preferred by today’s average voter.

These structural elements have been reinforced by developments in the region, which have reinforced the sense among Israeli voters that they are threatened by numerous enemies: Iran and its nuclear ambitions; Hezbollah and Hamas and their missiles; the rise of ISIS amid state failure in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Against this backdrop, it is easier to defend the status quo than to advocate accommodation involving territorial concessions.

Netanyahu’s victory was clearly an impressive personal comeback. In the weeks leading up to the elections, it seemed that the public had grown weary of a prime minister who had been in office long enough to be corrupted by the arrogance of power and tainted by a raft of petty scandals. He conducted a campaign that relied on his eloquence and charisma, as well as on scare tactics. Most significantly, he swung sharply to the right, out-flanking his rivals. Thus, two days prior to the election, he rescinded his formal acceptance, in 2009, of a two-state solution, vowing that his government would never allow Palestinian statehood.

The formation of a right-wing government will have a profound impact on the country’s foreign and domestic policies. Netanyahu has already destroyed his relationship with US President Barack Obama, and Israel’s relationship with the European Union is not much better. A government that continues to settle the West Bank and refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians will face erosion of its international legitimacy, boycotts, and sanctions. Relations with Egypt and Jordan will also be affected, and hopes of collaboration with the moderate Arab camp will be frustrated. On the home front, attempts by Likud and its right-wing allies to tamper with the legal system, the press, and other institutions identified with the “old elite” are likely to gain momentum.

Netanyahu knows how risky this course will be at home and abroad, which is why he is likely to invite Herzog to join the government as a junior partner. Herzog would then confront the same dilemma that his predecessors faced in 2009 and 2013.

The arguments for and against joining the government are well known. Doing so is the responsible thing to do, offering the opportunity to moderate the government’s policies and reduce the danger of a disaster. And, by holding a major portfolio, a junior partner can avoid marginalization and strengthen its position for the next election.

But, as Livni and Barak know, a junior partner more often ends up having no real impact on the core issues, merely providing window dressing for the status quo. Nor are Herzog and Livni free to make that choice on their own. Some party members are eager for cabinet portfolios and the other trappings of power; but many more would rather stay out and fight.

When Netanyahu traveled to Washington, DC, to deliver his controversial speech on Iran to the US Congress, he was described by his supporters as “Churchillian,” the lonely courageous voice warning a complacent world against an evil force. One can only hope that now Netanyahu will be Churchillian in a more profound sense, by using his empowered position to make the bold decisions needed to lead his country out of its current predicament and paralysis.

 

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