This is a longer and re-worked version of a piece that appeared on the RAND blog on Jan 24. For that version, click here.
As expected, prime minster Netanyahu and the combined Likud-Beiteynu list won a plurality of seats for the 19th Israeli Knesset (See the results below). However, despite his victory, Mr. Netanyahu is not done, and he is likely to face some tough bargaining choices in the next few weeks. A quick glance at the electoral map shows that even with their projected 12-seat lead over the next largest party, forming the government with only right-wing parties (without the religious orthodox) would leave Likud-Beiteynu short of the 60 seats needed for a Knesset majority.
Despite the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians are calling the two-state solution dead, important voices both regionally and internationally continue to trumpet the need to seize the last fledging opportunity to make it happen. As the first projections of the Israeli elections came in on Tuesday, Britain’s foreign minister is said to have warned Israel that the next Israeli government has the last chance for a two-state deal. Earlier in the week Jeff Goldberg reported in Bloomberg that President Obama had lamented that Netanyahu is not acting in Israel’s best interests. Obama’s complaint came after the Israeli Prime Minister had announced the Israel planned to build 3,000 additional housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including in an empty area that connects Jerusalem with the Jordan valley, essentially making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Obama’s complaint and Britain’s warnings are reminders that Netanyahu has done very little during his time in office to prove to Western leaders that he is serious about peace.While Netanyahu officially declared his support for a two-state solution in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, recent policies and actions have made his continued adherence to that commitment questionable. In the weeks before the elections, several hardline Likud officials were heard reassuring voters that Netanyahu was not really serious in his earlier statements and that Likud had never officially changed its staunch opposition to a Palestinian state. Hardline Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely even added that the Bar-Ilan speech was a tactical maneuver meant to placate the world. Even if Netanyahu, in a little-advertised rejoinder to his hawkish colleagues, did reaffirm his belief that he believed in “two free peoples living side by side in this small land,” the real test will come when he chooses his government.
Netanyahu thus has a number of alternatives with respect to forming a coalition, the choice of partners influencing the direction of Israeli policy over the next few years. His pick of partners will be influenced by his calculated priorities with regard to the most prominent issues that Israelis care about and his ability to tackle vs. ignore them. This includes the issue of the future of the peace process with the Palestinians.
While public opinion had projected that the Israeli electorate would shift the Knesset further to the right (shrinking the chances for a negotiated deal with the Palestinians), the preliminary election results did not entirely support those predictions. Even if the Likud party certainly lost seats to the right-wing national religious party, HaBayt HaYehudi (Jewish home), its chairman Naftali Bennet certainly did not garner as strong a support as he expected, making his pro-annexationist policies far from unchallenged in a future coalition. It is only in the unlikely scenario that Netanyahu decides to govern from a minority right-wing coalition that Bennet’s pro-settlement policies would be absolutely safe. What is perhaps more likely is that Netanyahu forms a center-haredi government or a right-center government, where he includes one of the larger parties from the center, such as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, or Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua. (See the possible scenarios here)
In fact, the most surprising outcome of the elections was the resurgence of the center left, this time with the new party of Yesh Atid. Under the leadership of former television host Yair Lapid, the new party managed to garner 19 seats, putting it in second place after Likud. Thus, the leftist-centrist block, which includes, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua party and Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor, is in fact the strongest of the four traditional electoral blocks in Israel (right-wing, ultra-Orthodox, center-left and Israeli Arab). Should Netanyahu decide to form a government with any of the parties in this bloc, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will not be dropped from the government’s agenda.
Ultimately, Netanyahu’s ability to form a government of his choice will also depend on the ability of the resolve of the center-left to “hold out” against him. In 2009, Netanyahu was “passed the torch” to form a government although Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party received a majority of the votes, after she failed to gather a majority left-center coalition. Although such a scenario is probably unlikely for Likud this time, the Labor leader, Shelly Yacimovich, has high hopes. In response to the preliminary results she announced that she would do everything in her power to create a coalition of parties with a “shared social and economic agenda, which will also kick-start the peace process.” However, Yair Lapid put such rumors partly to rest on Wednesday when he pledged not to obstruct Netanyahu’s efforts to form an effective government.
This brings us back to the point that was raised in the beginning of this piece—what are the chances that the next Israeli government will indeed make a renewed effort for peace with the Palestinians? While it is probably safe to say that a renewed effort is highly likely, given the way that the political ducks have lined up with Obama just having entered his final term, whether such an effort is successful depends on the shape and the content of such an effort, rather than whether an initiative takes place. The Middle East is used to seeing second-term US presidents launch half-hearted efforts to make history in the Middle East while not paying much attention to the formula or content of their proposals. The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and the seriousness by which both sides view their own demands deserves a serious look at previous proposals and a re-crafting of some of the basic assumptions that have served as the foundation for the two-state formula. Thus, while the two-state solution may be dead, the new government will have the unique opportunity and the responsibility to craft a new formula that can better meet the complexities of the current Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
- You: Binyamin Netanyahu rejects calls for Palestinian state within 1967 lines (guardian.co.uk)
- For Israeli voters, missile fire, money main issues in election (cnn.com)
- Israeli Election Primer – What You Should Know (pbs.org)
- Netanyahu wins reelection, Israeli media says (washingtontimes.com)
- Britain says Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution almost dead (uk.reuters.com)
- Israeli election for dummies: How votes become seats – Haaretz (haaretz.com)