February 23, 2015 - Knesset election assessment

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This week, Alpher discusses the likelihood Israel will produce a government capable of moving forward toward a two-state solution; whether a right-wing-led government is more likely at this point; what, at this point in time, is the most likely coalition to emerge from these elections; what surprises he envisions in these elections; the possibility of the United States and the international community ratcheting up the pressure on the next Israeli government; and what are the consequences thus far of the tension over Iran between Netanyahu and the Obama administration that has reportedly brought US-Israeli relations to a new low.

Q. With three weeks to go until Knesset elections, how do you evaluate the likelihood they will produce a government capable of moving forward toward a two-state solution?

A. Even bearing in mind that everything that follows is speculative, the chances are low. Even if the Zionist Camp (Labor plus Livni) emerges as the largest Knesset faction and succeeds in forming a coalition, the government will be too divided on the issue to make much progress in the direction of peace with the Palestinians.

The reasons are numerous.

First, even a Zionist Camp-led coalition will include centrist parties like Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beitenu and Kahlon, many of whose voters and leaders do not believe that Israel has a serious Palestinian partner for peace and who support the settlement movement. They won’t line up behind Labor’s impressive platform, brought to the party by former IDF Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, which advocates trying simultaneously to negotiate both a two-state solution with the Palestinian leadership and interim measures, while all the while preparing for the fallback option of a unilateral West Bank withdrawal that factors in Israel’s security needs.

Second, the settlers themselves will continue to enjoy sufficient support in the Knesset, government and security institutions, and among the public-at-large to thwart any coalition move to withdraw from territories in the West Bank. Given this divide, settler threats of widespread “passive” opposition could divide the country.

Third, Palestinian divisions--between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fateh, and within the Fateh camp itself--will loom large, particularly against the backdrop of a divided Arab and Muslim world and widespread violence in Syria, Sinai, Lebanon and elsewhere. This reality will dictate a cautious approach even by a left-led Israeli government.

Nevertheless, the very emergence of a left-center-led coalition that seeks a two-state solution, limits settlement expansion and encourages dialogue with the Palestinians would undoubtedly enhance Israel’s regional and international image. Hence this is still the best coalition that Israel could hope for, even if it is based on far-reaching concessions to the center-right on the part of a Zionist Camp faction that enjoys a slim plurality in the Knesset vote.

 

Q. Is a right-wing-led government more likely at this point?

A. Zionist Camp and Likud are in a virtual tie in the polls, with only a point or two separating them. But the right-center bloc will almost certainly be bigger than the left-center bloc, if only because the Zionist Camp will be unable politically to include the large United Arab List (see below) in a working coalition with the center parties.

 

Q. So what in your view is, at this point in time, the most likely coalition to emerge from these elections?

A. A coalition based on the 50 or so mandates constituted by Likud plus Zionist Camp. Given the sharp spread of votes across the electoral spectrum, it looks increasingly likely that we will confront the prospect of what is essentially a familiar Labor-Likud coalition, possibly with rotation of the premiership. Such a “unity government” would have an easy time bringing in centrist parties that give it a stable majority of 70 MKs at least. It would be able to project sufficient moderation to at least generate some form of new two-state negotiations that limit settlement spread and at least temporarily reassure the US, EU and Israel’s moderate Arab neighbors. It would be stable and centrist enough to manage Israel’s security against threats from Islamists in Gaza and along the northern border. It would even be able to take a strong and united stand on the Iran nuclear issue while nevertheless patching up relations with Washington. But for all the reasons outlined earlier, it would not “make peace” with the Palestinians.

Such a coalition could prove attractive to the large Israeli center because it promises stability and avoids extreme politics. It could also constitute an incentive for Netanyahu to back away from a right-wing coalition--assuming he has this option after elections--if he is worried enough about pressure from Washington, the European Union and the United Nations. True, more than 50 percent of voters currently oppose a unity coalition. But they could change their mind if they confront a near dead-heat outcome of the elections. At the end of the day, Israelis value unity and consensus, however superficial they might be.

Finally, a unity coalition could enable Labor leader Isaac Herzog to demonstrate to dubious voters his capacity to fill, for the first time, a senior ministerial position, whether prime minister or foreign minister. This could prove crucial to Herzog’s future electoral prospects.

 

Q. Bearing in mind that elections are three weeks away and Israeli election polling is notoriously fickle, what surprises do you envision in these elections?

A. The United Arab List is generating Arab voter enthusiasm and could emerge with 12 to 15 mandates, a strong enough Knesset faction to influence coalition-building, and eventually--assuming it holds together and does not disintegrate into its four component parties--legislation as well. One or two of its mandates will apparently come from Jewish voters who abandon Meretz because they see an opportunity for greater Arab integration into the Israeli body politic.

Kulanu, the party formed by Moshe Kachlon, will emerge with upwards of 10 mandates. Kachlon is almost the only candidate with real proletarian people-skills. His number two, retired general Yoav Galant with his sharp tongue and analytical skills, is a dark horse to watch. Along with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid (also likely to get 10 or more mandates) Kachlon will form a socio-economic centrist bloc that could determine the shape of the next coalition.

Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu faction will shrink. It has been hurt by allegations of corruption, the consequent defection of all its sitting ministers, and the inevitable shrinking of the “Russian vote” as, 25 years after the mass immigration of Russian speakers, absorption takes its toll on ethnic solidarity.

Shas will emerge as the party that aspires to speak for North African and other eastern Jews, including not just the ultra-orthodox but secular and traditional as well. But it will also downsize because this too is a shrinking ethnic bloc.

In contrast, growing allegations of corruption in the Netanyahu household and failure on the part of the Netanyahu government to stop the outrageous rise in housing prices will not stick and will not seriously affect Likud election chances. The Likud camp is simply too loyal, and Labor’s leadership, particularly the “wimpy” Isaac Herzog, simply not attractive enough to make a serious difference. In many ways, these elections will continue to be Netanyahu’s to win or lose.

 

Q. Meanwhile we hear intimations that the United States and the international community will ratchet up the pressure on the next Israeli government.

A. The specter of a post-election pressure campaign on the next Israeli government resonated last week in remarks made in Tel Aviv by Martin Indyk, who was Secretary of State John Kerry’s number two in the abortive 2013-14 US effort to jump-start a peace process. Indyk suggested that if the next Israeli government is reticent about a two-state solution, then Washington might acquiesce in a United Nations Security Council move to pass a resolution that lays out the principles of such a solution. Were this to happen, it would be a first instance in which Washington acts against Israel’s will on the Palestinian issue in the Security Council. There were also intimations last week from Brussels regarding new European Union post-election steps to increase involvement in the peace process and to lay on new economic sanctions directed at the settlements.

How much of this reflects serious intent on the part of the US and EU with regard to dealing with a possible new right-wing government in Israel, and how much is hype designed to signal the Israeli voter that it would be best to move away from the right, is difficult to say. Certainly, there are powerful reasons why the Obama administration might shy away from a serious confrontation with the next Israeli government: lame-duck status, the Republican-dominated Congress, preoccupation with the war against Islamic State, and hopes for a rapprochement with Iran. On the other hand, to the extent Netanyahu takes seriously the option of a broad unity government (see above), fear of Washington could be a factor.

 

Q. In any case, the tension over Iran between Netanyahu and the Obama administration has reportedly brought US-Israeli relations to a new low. What are the consequences thus far?

A. First, note that the tension has been generated to a large extent by Netanyahu’s perceived electoral need to demonstrate to his voters that he will defend Israeli security at any cost, and to his American financial and political support base (read: Republicans and Sheldon Adelson) that he is its stalwart ally. Even Netanyahu presumably believes that after elections the damage to the relationship can be at least partially repaired.

For the moment, though, strategic coordination between Washington and Jerusalem has clearly suffered: witness the widespread publicity afforded US acknowledgement that it is no longer fully briefing Israel on the content and progress of nuclear talks with Iran. Similarly, the administration’s anticipated boycott of Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before Congress and possibly even his AIPAC speech send an immediate signal that the strategic relationship is in jeopardy. This may be a short-term phenomenon, but even a fleeting perception of reduced US support is liable to affect Israel’s deterrent posture as perceived by enemies like Iran, Hezbollah and Sunni Islamist extremists in Gaza and Sinai.

That this is indeed likely to be a short-term phenomenon was reflected on Sunday in the news that Israel has been permitted by the Pentagon to order a second round of F-35 stealth aircraft for the Israel Air Force. If we go back several decades, the almost knee-jerk US reaction to tensions with Israel was to freeze or delay arms supplies. The Obama administration has consistently taken pride in its concern for Israel’s security needs. But by compartmentalizing its angry response to Netanyahu’s provocations over Iran and the Palestinian issue, it also limits its capacity to influence Israel’s behavior.

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