Obama’s Silver Lining in Israel: Elections Weaken Netanyahu

Israel’s doves may have lost and Netanyahu will remain prime minister, but it isn’t all bad news for Obama—Bibi’s weaker. The power has shifted toward America, writes Peter Beinart.
January 23, 2013 |
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When most Americans hear the results of yesterday’s Israeli elections, they’ll be confused. When Barack Obama hears them, however, he should feel at least a little hope.

It’s not because doves won. They didn’t. Yes, Israel’s furthest left Jewish party, Meretz, looks set to double its seats from 3 to 6. But Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home jumped from 3 to 11. Tzipi Livni, the major candidate most passionate about creating a Palestinian state—and the woman whose party in 2009 bested Likud by one seat—is now a virtual afterthought. The Labor Party almost doubled its seats by focusing on economic equality and ignoring the peace process. Yair Lapid, Israel’s new political star—whose party unexpectedly came in second—also focused on domestic issues. And when Lapid did talk about the Palestinians, what he said was better than Netanyahu, but hardly inspiring. Oh yes, and Netanyahu is almost certain to remain prime minister.

Yesterday’s election, in other words, crystallized a trend that’s been building for several years. Partly because of Israeli despair over the Palestinians’ willingness to make peace, and partly because of the Palestinian security cooperation that has helped curb terrorism from the West Bank, many Israelis have turned inward and begun acting politically as if the Palestinians don’t exist. In fact, they acted in this campaign as if Iran barely exists either.

But for Obama, what offers reason for hope is this: Netanyahu is weaker. As he tries to assemble a government in the coming weeks, the Israeli leader faces two unappetizing options. The first is a small coalition dominated by right-wing and religious parties. If he goes this route, his government will be dominated by people who want to murder the two-state solution and hold a party to stomp on its grave. Netanyahu will have to spend much of his time trying to prevent Naftali Bennett and his far-right Jewish Home Party from making good on their promise to annex most of the West Bank, a position that many of the Likud candidates elected alongside Netanyahu share. Such a government would be so unpopular across the world, and even in much of the American Jewish community, that Obama would find it easier to publicly express his displeasure. And such a small coalition, facing so much global disdain, would find it hard to survive for long.  

Conversely, and more probably, Netanyahu could form a larger coalition including Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid and maybe Livni’s Hatnua. But then he would be at the mercy of a man, Lapid, who clearly sees himself as Netanyahu’s successor. Given Netanyahu’s weakened state, it’s easy to imagine Lapid looking for a popular issue—military service for the ultra-Orthodox, for instance—on which to pick a fight with Bibi, exit the government and ask Israelis to elect him prime minister instead. In Michael Koplow’s words, “Whichever path Netanyahu ultimately chooses, he is going to be facing another round of elections sooner rather than later.”

A weaker Israeli government does Obama little good right away. For the past four years, Israel has boasted a prime minister strong enough to move boldly toward a two-state deal, but uninterested in doing so. Now it has a prime minister who lacks not only the ideological desire, but perhaps also the political strength. But Netanyahu’s weakness also means he’ll be less able to fend Obama off if the White House unveils a peace initiative. To the contrary, the more actively engaged Obama’s new foreign-policy team becomes on the Palestinian issue, the shorter Netanyahu’s political life span will be. Right-leaning commentators sometimes claim that public disagreements between America and Israel stiffen Israeli spines and push them to the right. But in truth, such intervention helped topple Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and Netanyahu himself in 1999. And while it’s unlikely it was the key factor, Obama’s recent dissing of Netanyahu probably played some role in his last-minute drop in support.

In other words, the power dynamic between the American and Israeli leaders has shifted in Obama’s direction. And if Obama wants, he’ll be well-positioned to hasten Netanyahu’s demise, and push Israel toward elections that just might produce a Lapid-led government more open to a viable Palestinian state. It’s still a relative long shot. But given the stakes, it’s worth a try.