March 23, 2015 - Israeli election aftermath: US-Israel relations

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This week, Alpher discusses lessons learned by Israel's center-left following its defeat to Netanyahu; Low likelihood of a Netanyahu-Herzog unity government; The state of US-Israel relations following Netanyahu's statements on the two-state solution and on Arab citizens' voting. 

Q. After nearly a week for reflection, how does the center-left understand its defeat in the Knesset elections?

A. The most perceptive analyses appear to focus on a number of interrelated factors. At the substantive level, the center-left’s platform was primarily socio-economic, whereas that of the right concentrated on issues of security and identity. The left’s assessment of Israel’s economic ills was based on dry statistics highlighted by the generally left-leaning mainstream media and seemingly ignored the fact that the public feels relatively prosperous. The right concentrated on skepticism regarding Arab (including Palestinian) and Iranian intentions.

At the lowest level of election propaganda, the right succeeded to some extent in portraying the center-left as Ashkenazi elitists who seemingly “prefer Arabs to Jews”. By largely ignoring Netanyahu’s security failings such as last summer’s war with Hamas, the left actually “lost” Gaza-periphery development towns that were hard hit by that war and ostensibly should have punished the Likud at the polls. Ultimately, too, at the last minute the left proved itself civilized--some would say “timid”--and had no ready response when confronted by Netanyahu’s gutter tactics and racist incitement that appealed to some Israelis at the most primitive “tribal” level.

(Those tribal emotions stirred up by Netanyahu have not subsided. Left-wing artists like Yonatan Geffen and Avinoam Nini, who issued sharp and even graphic verbal warnings regarding the price voters will pay for reinstalling the right, have in response been physically attacked and threatened by rightists. Once again, the left fights with words, the right with fists and threats of violence.)

Still, Netanyahu’s greatest achievement was in draining off votes not from the left but from the right--from Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party, which dropped from 12 to eight mandates and from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, which dropped to a mere six mandates. He did this by capitalizing on Labor’s “anyone but Bibi” slogans and instilling fear among extreme right-wing voters lest Labor emerge from the elections larger than the Likud and get the nod from President Rivlin to form a government. The Likud’s traditional ultra-orthodox allies also lost mandates.

The left-center actually grew in these elections (so did representation by women MKs, to a record level of 28 out of 120); it is the center and the ultra-orthodox who lost.

 

Q. Does this mean that Herzog’s threat to topple Netanyahu’s next government and replace it is realistic?

A. It might prove much easier to bring down a right-religious coalition of 67 mandates than to replace it. The 53-mandate opposition Herzog is likely to lead is almost certain to prove too diverse to support an alternative coalition. While a disgruntled religious or centrist party might, in a year or two, bolt Netanyahu’s coalition, neither it nor even many in the Labor and Yesh Atid opposition is likely to feel comfortable forming a coalition with the United Arab Party. And the latter, with its highly disparate Islamist, Arab nationalist and communist components, will in any case be hard put to hold together.

 

Q. On Sunday, President Rivlin called for a broad coalition, larger than 67 mandates. Could Netanyahu try to negotiate with Labor and/or Yesh Atid?

A. He might indeed try, but this would essentially be a negotiating tactic designed to reduce the exaggerated demands for senior portfolios being proffered by parties like Yisrael Beitenu and HaBait HaYehudi that lost mandates in these elections. If Labor leader Herzog--who talks about leading an aggressive and united parliamentary opposition--goes along with this initiative to see what Netanyahu has to offer by way of a centrist coalition, he will in fact merely strengthen Netanyahu’s hand vis-a-vis the smaller right-wing parties while alienating his own party faithful.

All in all, bearing in mind the bad blood from this campaign and the basic orientation of both Netanyahu and Herzog, it is extremely doubtful the latter would even consider joining a Likud-led coalition. Herzog’s basic threat to bring down the coalition is more persuasive: having strengthened Labor in these elections, and knowing that a single dissatisfied party will be able to topple the government, he is more likely to seek early new elections within a couple of years.

Still, one cannot entirely rule out a situation in which Netanyahu, realizing how badly he has isolated Israel internationally and divided it internally after calling the center-left “anti-Zionist”, does an about-face and seeks a tactical and temporary alliance with the center-left in order to weather the storm of condemnation, particularly from Washington. We just saw with what ease Netanyahu can reverse gears.

 

Q. Indeed, President Obama is making his dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s positions very plain. What steps to curb Israeli policies might he now consider?

A. Following both a series of high-level but mostly unattributed leaks from White House officials regarding the administration’s reaction as well as a tough Obama-Netanyahu phone call, President Obama spoke clearly to the Huffington Post last Friday. "We take [Netanyahu] at his word when he said that [a Palestinian state] wouldn't happen during his prime ministership, and so that's why we've got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don't see a chaotic situation in the region," Obama stated. And he added pointedly that Netanyahu’s disparaging election-day comment about Israeli Arab voters “starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country”. 

Obama, then, has seized on Netanyahu’s reactionary campaign rhetoric, while ignoring Netanyahu’s transparent “corrections” in post-election interviews to US TV networks, in order to stake out a potential official new administration stand regarding what has been obvious to many in Israel and the US for years: Netanyahu’s determination to avoid a two-state solution.

Informed speculation regarding the substance of such a stand filled a spectrum of possible actions. These ranged from an American-sponsored UN Security Council resolution delineating the parameters of a Palestinian state, to merely refusing to veto such a resolution proposed by others, to giving a green light to the European Union to expand punitive economic sanctions against Israel, or to simply revealing the understandings Secretary of State Kerry believes he reached with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas by March 2014, by way of presenting an administration outline for a two-state solution.

 

Q. But aren’t there good reasons why the Obama administration might avoid a major confrontation with Israel over the Palestinian state issue?

A. There are indeed, and they draw on strategic conditions in the broader Middle East as well as the exigencies of American politics.

First and foremost, the administration will have to factor in an immediate and inevitable confrontation with Israel over a nuclear agreement with Iran. Assuming such an agreement is reached, will Washington want to simultaneously manage two major strategic confrontations with Israel, one of which (Iran nuclear) effectively brings in Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia on Israel’s side?

Indeed, these Arab neighbors may even want to speak quietly with the administration in favor of Netanyahu’s primary rhetorical reason for avoiding a Palestinian state solution at the current juncture: the joint Iranian and IS threat to the region. (To be sure, Netanyahu has an additional more fundamental reason: his ideological coveting of the West Bank, even at the expense of Israeli democracy and Zionist values.) For its part, the administration is so heavily invested in fighting IS and seeking a modus vivendi with Iran that this preoccupation, coupled with its basic long-term desire to lower the US profile in the Middle East, might be reason enough to avoid a confrontation with Israel over the Palestinian state issue.

Then there is the legacy of Kerry’s failure last March following nine months of ineffective negotiations. Should the administration now try again, given that the same recalcitrant leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, remain in power, and in view of heavy Arab criticism of its performance in recent years elsewhere in the region, in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iran?

That leaves the UN option. Yet Netanyahu would presumably reason that he could temporarily ignore a UN Palestinian state resolution with relative impunity and hope for the election of a friendlier American president in November 2016. Nor is Obama likely to invoke direct American sanctions against Israel such as withholding arms supplies, in view of his ongoing ironclad commitment, and that of a large majority of Americans, to Israel’s security.

This brings us to American electoral politics. A strong administration stand against Israel over the Palestinian issue (and the Iran issue?) is liable to generate protests not just from Netanyahu’s Republican allies (House Speaker John Boehner will visit Israel next week!) but conceivably from Democratic candidates as well, possibly including Hillary Clinton, if they assess that it would alienate Jewish voters who traditionally support democrats.

True, major sectors of the American Jewish community are reassessing their attitude toward an Israel that is seemingly determined to slide down a slippery slope toward a loss of democratic and Jewish values. But how far might Obama bet on this?  

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