Netanyahu round four – Why and what now?

By Millie Radovic, an Anglo-Serbian election nerd currently in her first year of a BA in International Relations at King’s College London. Chief Editor of IR Today.

On the 17th of March, Israel held its general elections. Whilst the international community expected, and more importantly hoped, that the opposition would win or break even with the former government as the polls predicted, disappointment washed over everyone here as the ruling party won, and by large numbers at that.

What exactly did they win? Here are some statistics first for those of you that haven’t seen them:

Knesset Seats            Party

30                                Likud. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party; combines ideological nationalists and security
                                    hawks. Fiscally conservative.

The Zionist Union. Main centre-left opposition coalition. Electoral pact between Labour
                                    Party led by Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah led by Tzipi Livni. Accuses the right of extremism,
                                    which polarises and isolates Israel.

13                                Joint Arab List. Merger of diverse and often fractious Arab parties.

11                                 Yesh Atid. Centre populist party that would preferred to have replaced Netanyahu but doesn’t
                                     rule out joining him. Seeks to represent the secular middle-class.

10                                 Kulanu. Led by former Likud Communications minister Moshe Kahlon. To be a key kingmaker
                                     or ‘swing party’ for whichever government.

8                                   Jewish Home (Habit Hayehudi). Far-right party led by Naftali Bennet (actually pretty hilarious given the association of the surname in British politics). Territorial nationalists staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state. Will back Netanyahu.

Total seats in the Knesset – 120 (Hence, majority = 61).
Turnout – 72.3%

For a link to an interactive bar graph of the results click here, and if you’re an election nerd like me you can even ‘form your own coalition’ and see exactly which combinations are possible.

Given these results and recent events, I’d like to address the following: how Netanyahu managed to surprise us, the significance of the Joint Arab list, coalition negotiations and consequences of those, the prospects for future Palestinian talks, and the future of Israel’s relationship with the US and its European allies.

The election guru?

I’ll admit it, I was shocked to see how many votes Likud got. How could so many people vote for such an aggressive politician as opposed to the clearly more sensible option that the Zionist Union is? Well, I was at the Israeli Embassy the very next day, and they didn’t seem that surprised. And now it seems clear why: Netanyahu is a centre-right politician who successfully gauged Israeli popular thought and took a big step further right to clinch those extra seats.

The US-Iran nuclear negotiations, while I support them, didn’t exactly help his opposition. They provided the perfect arena for Netanyahu to produce ‘political gold’ by condemning the US for trusting the ‘evil enemy’ and  accusing Congress of using aid foundations to ‘fund a concerted campaign against him’ from within the walls of the Capitol.  Stressing that Israel is facing more security threats than ever, and that he was the only one able to deter these threats, Netanyahu painted himself as the only viable guardian of a state in constant danger.

Finally, he took the biggest leap to the right in publically stating that a Palestinian state would not be established if and when he were re-elected prime minister. This many took to mean that he did not support a two-state solution at all, and it combined with the aura that he’d created around himself – as the only possibly Prime Minister of Israel – undoubtedly gained him the more nationalist right votes.

So there you have it – the perfect mix of far-right fear tactics and international tensions for the perfect – to us at least – storm. But were they really just tactics? I’m not going to go into last year’s ‘summer of hell’ and its detrimental effects on both Palestinian territories and Israel. But despite Israel having significantly less casualties than Palestine, Hamas’ attacks and barbaric guerrilla techniques (e.g. human shields) were undoubtedly scarring for the population. Under a 100 of them died as opposed to over 2,000 Palestinians, but nevertheless listening to Israeli stories about getting on buses unsure of whether they will explode cannot but evoke sympathy and the feeling that they are indeed scarred by the conflict.

Sure enough, opinion polls show that Israeli civilians are more tired of the conflict than ever, and even more open to a two-state solution. But they also show that after last summer they are more pessimistic about the viability of this than ever, as they’ve seen a more extreme side of the other camp than they had in a long time. Sitting here in Europe I say that I could never vote for someone like Netanyahu, but honestly I can’t say that after last summer I blame the Israelis for voting for him – if I was in Jerusalem on the 17th, I may well have done so myself.

A Turnout We Dream Of

Now, can we just have another look at that statistic, a whooping 72.3%! Our own democracies take pride in everything over 60%. What this is a clear indication of is that not only are the Israeli politicians incredibly good at mobilising the nation, but also a lot is at stake for the civilians – as evident in the security issues that Netanyahu stressed, and socio-economic ones that the Zionist movement stressed.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Arab voter turnout was 63.5% as opposed to 56% in 2013. This is an impressive improvement and as a proud liberal democrat I can’t help but applaud it. As a consequence of this, the Joint Arab List is the 3rd largest party in the Knesset with 13 seats. This is insignificant in terms of government formation but it is significant in terms of the rest of Israel now seeing the Arab minority (of approximately 20%) as a serious political actor. What this will do to intrastate tensions only time can tell.

Deal or No Deal

Now, what the above results indicate is what we shuddered at here in 2010, but the Israelis are used to, a coalition. The Huffington Post, albeit not being my first choice for reading… well anything, lays out the pillars of the coalition negotiations quite well. They’re the same as the pillars of most political discussions within Israel, and of the party manifestos: foreign policy and security and socio-economic issues. Indeed this translates into Israel’s tensions with its neighbours and the cost of living.

The Huff Post also goes on to say that Netanyahu was ‘firm’ in rejecting the two-state solution and that this will thus not be up for discussion. Well with pleasure I refute that here. Clearly purposefully ambiguous, Netanyahu said that a two-state solution was not viable while he is PM, allowing him to subsequently indicate that he was referring to the timing not being right. Interestingly, Netanyahu two days after the election explicitly said that he wanted a two-state solution. Whether he had effectively lied then, or is backtracking now due to pressure from the West I can’t tell. But, surely enough negotiation with Palestine and the possibility of a two-state solution is always on the table. While I see how Netanyahu used ambiguity to gain support in elections, this is not something he can do in government formation.

This also prompts arguments that a national unity government (that’s Likud + Zionist movement) is possible, and would be most representative. In fact, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar says the Zionist Union and Likud forming a national unity government in the next Knesset is ‘still a possibility’. But countless shots were fired during campaigning, and hence most dismiss this as ‘fanatical’.

The most important ally in government formation will for Likud be Kulanu lead by a former Likud communications minister, Moshe Kahlon. A testimony to this is that almost two weeks ago Netanyahu in fact offered Kahlon the finance minister spot – exactly what he had campaigned for. No official coalition agreement has been announced yet. And while Kulanu is right-wing in terms of outward policies i.e. security issues, its primary outlined aims are tackling monopolies and the cost of living. Even though Likud is more ‘fiscally conservative’, as the swing party Kulanu will be asking for promotion of these issues within government, which may explain why a deal hasn’t been made yet.

Trouble in Paradise

Meanwhile, even though Netanyahu’s eccentric rhetoric gained him popularity at home, it certainly doesn’t seem to have done so elsewhere. A political blog I follow, stressing the need for a two-state solution, lists the 4 challenges of the new government as:

1.     Relations with the US

2.     Iran

3.     Palestinian leaderships

4.     Delegitimization of Israel’s policies in parts of the West

I would also put the States at the top there. While the matter of the hostility of Israel’s neighbourhood is indisputable, it is on Washington’s support that it relies on to ensure its security in terms of both other international support and most negotiations. Now again, if I were an Israeli citizen I would be very appreciative of this and would certainly not think it in my personal or national interest to antagonise the US. So was Netanyahu irresponsible in his statements?

In reality, not so much. Saving face perhaps, the US has already dismissed much of his rhetoric as ‘the stuff that gets said in the run up to elections’ – I mean after all Nigel Farage just blamed HIV on immigration, surely Netanyahu’s crime is smaller.

Nevertheless, his speech at Congress was certainly not greeted warmly, and while it may not have significant direct consequences it did nothing to increase his popularity in Washington. A more concrete reason to worry may be that US-Israeli national interests are arguably diverging as seen in the West’s agreement with Iran. Yet again this is at most a medium-term worry. Short-term, following their letter, it is reasonable to expect the Republican dominated Congress to reject the deal in the US anyway *sigh*. This would mean that the Anti-Iranian sentiment is shared between the US legislative body and the Israeli PM, and that perhaps interests are not diverging after all. Meanwhile, long-term arguably we can be optimistic about the deal – that if and when it does get passed, while possibly making Israel uncomfortable at first, it can lead to increasing stability in the region by removing the threat of a ‘rogue state’ and maybe even in very long terms allowing a return of positive pre-Khomeini Iran-Israeli relations.

But this sort of speculation can go on without end, so to sum up:

Yes, Netanyahu surprised us, yes he’s been devilish recently – but we cannot deny the reasons behind his election, and given the voter turnout we cannot deny its legitimacy; this, exactly this, is what the Israeli people want. It may even be what the Palestinians want. Al Jazeera recently pointed out that Palestinians would rather have the more aggressive Netanyahu as he exposes ‘the true face of Israel’, whereas Herzog would ‘blur it’ and improve Israel’s standing in the eyes of the West. I don’t particularly agree that Netanyahu represents the true face of Israel, more the statesman it feels it needs at this time. I also don’t agree with their statement that Israel has transformed from a strategic asset to a ‘burden to its allies’.

As the only nuclear power in the Middle East, and a crucial economic one, Israel remains a key actor. The growth of ISIS in the region, the spread of those that align with it – Boko Haram and now likely Al-Shabab, in a globalised world make the Middle East more fragile than ever. The national, regional, and international threat that this poses means that stability of Middle Eastern governments and their coordination with the international community is more important then ever. Surely this importance is evident in the Lausanne negotiations.

So my eyes, like those of the rest of the world, will be (albeit still disappointedly) on Netanyahu as he forms the new government. But my fingers will also be crossed that this government is first and foremost one that can maintain stability in the wake of unprecedented regional turbulence, whilst taking necessary steps in negotiation with Palestine, and maintaining sound relations with the West. A lot to ask I know, but a girl can hope.



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