Israel’s tragic election

Netanyahu’s victory seems a devastating blow to hopes for peace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures to supporters as reacts to exit poll figures in Israel

Anyone who is surprised by the outcome of yesterday’s Israeli election—a stunning victory, and arguably even mandate, for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—hasn’t been paying attention to political trends in Israel. But anyone who isn’t shocked at the results and their implications almost certainly doesn’t understand what is at stake and what a significant blow has been dealt to hopes for a better future.

The most important fact about the election outcome is that Israeli voters knew exactly what they were endorsing and had a real alternative, which they rejected. The campaign gave us Netanyahu at his most raw. He was explicitly anti-peace. He was overtly racist. And he used Israel’s position in American politics to cynically campaign for himself by exploiting the high honor of a speech before a joint session of Congress to insultingly confront an American president who is unpopular among Jewish Israelis.

It wasn’t in spite of these obnoxious positions that he won yesterday—it was because of them. There is no use in pretending otherwise. It’s probably unfair to assume that the majority of Israelis like all of these disturbing stances, or even any of them individually. It’s possible that the same majority that has given him this dramatic victory would have objected to each of them had there been a referendum on the questions.

Rather, it is the overall Netanyahu package that Israelis have embraced, and that includes a very dark side that was not only not hidden, but was actually highlighted, during the campaign. As the campaign became more desperate, indeed, Netanyahu’s voice became shriller and his profile darkened considerably. Given the disparity between polling results and the final outcome, and the fact that Israel imposes a polling blackout before voting begins, it’s hard not to think that a large group of Jewish Israelis decided at the last minute to continue with Netanyahu. If so, the Netanyahu that won their late affection was specifically one whose profile was crafted precisely to appeal to the worst instincts of the Israeli voters.

It was during this campaign that Netanyahu finally and forthrightly repudiated his 2009 Bar Ilan University speech in which he claimed to be endorsing a two-state solution. Netanyahu has now bluntly stated that he will not permit the creation of a Palestinian state under his premiership. This does not appear to have damaged his political viability in Israel. Indeed, quite to the contrary.

What will the United States do now that Netanyahu is so firmly on record opposing the bipartisan consensus American policy goal of a two-state solution? Any Palestinian leadership that rejects the goal of two states would undoubtedly be held to be out of compliance with the Quartet conditions, and would almost certainly face dramatic, if not drastic, retaliatory measures.

Given the double standards that are hardwired into the international mechanisms on Israeli and Palestinian issues, no one seriously expects the same standards to be applied to Israel, which is a sovereign state (among other major factors that inform such unfair disparities). But unless Netanyahu performs some kind of remarkable reversal on the issue that appears credible—a scenario that is very difficult to imagine even in theory—we will be faced with a new and dangerous complication in the US-Israel relationship. The next Israeli government will be led by a prime minister, Netanyahu, who overtly opposes the realization of the core American policy goal of a two-state solution.

It’s likely that American and Israeli leaders will try to finesse this disparity as much as possible, and even to pretend that it does not exist. But that’s going to be very difficult. Neither side is going to want to confront the other over this, but it’s likely that one of the two parties is going to have to shift on the question. It is, sadly, not impossible to imagine that the biggest change will eventually come on the American side, with the development of a policy attitude towards a two-state solution that deemphasizes its significance and seeks to change the subject as much as possible.

The only alternative is a confrontation between Israel and the United States over Palestinian statehood. For a very complex set of reasons—not the caricature “wag the dog” scenario posited by some cynics—this is unlikely to happen. Netanyahu has already demonstrated that he can “get away with” trashing US foreign policy before a joint session of Congress. It doesn’t appear that he paid any price at all for that monumental effrontery, or that he is likely to now, particularly given that it helped him get rather spectacularly reelected. Under such circumstances, he is also unlikely to face much of an American backlash over his repudiation of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s ugly and overtly racist appeal to Jewish Israeli voters on the grounds that “hordes” of Arabs were “descending” on polling booths, won’t gain much attention outside of Israel. And within the country, it certainly didn’t hurt him. It may actually have helped.

Those who see the performance of the United Arab List, or even the center-left Zionist Union coalition, as silver linings on dark clouds because they were better than might have been anticipated a few months ago are not wrong. These are both good things. But, given the enormous victory of Netanyahu, and the platform that he campaigned on—in other words, the persona and the politics that have just been roundly endorsed by the Israeli electorate—they are focusing on what amount to minor details.

The real story is not the reelection of the “bad, old Netanyahu,” but rather, it would certainly seem, the election of a far worse “new Netanyahu.” The Palestinians, the Americans and others will have to deal with the Israeli government this election has produced. Given the tone and tenor of the Netanyahu campaign, and the kind of politics that have triumphed in Israel, even simply a return to business as usual may prove a monumental challenge.