Israel’s unexpected political turn means the U.S. should push issues of
peace, Palestinians and territory harder than ever.
We can assume that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were surprised by the Israeli election results in late January. Everyone else was. Unless the administration commissioned its own hypersensitive surveys in Israel and hired Nate Silver to interpret them, the people in charge of U.S. foreign policy had probably accepted the conventional wisdom that Benjamin Netanyahu would coast to an easy victory. After all, Netanyahu was running unopposed for prime minister and Israel was shifting rightward. The new political star would be Naftali Bennett, head of the religious nationalist party HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home).
OK, that was wrong. Bennett’s list did get 12 seats, but he failed to break out of his base, hawkish religious Zionists. The conventional wisdom is that the real winner is the political center, embodied by Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party. But that’s not quite accurate either. I do hope that analysts at State and the National Security Council have been studying the numbers closely, because they have implications for U.S. policy.
As you recall, the right-wing bloc in the Knesset actually slipped from 65 to 61 seats, the narrowest possible majority. The alliance of Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) parties lost a quarter of its strength in parliament—even though Netanyahu was the only real candidate for the premiership. Lapid’s slate of rookie politicians got 19 seats, becoming the second largest party in the Knesset. Hence the narrative of a centrist surge.
Actually, though, the center’s share of parliament dropped a bit. The total for Lapid, the remains of Kadima, and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s new slate was 27 seats—one less than Kadima had in the outgoing Knesset. The only slice of the political pie that grew was the old left: Meretz and Labor got five new seats between them.
So much for the despairing premise that Israel was steadily shifting to the right—and that this purported shift made it nearly pointless for Obama to renew U.S. efforts for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. In fact, the election results are more propitious for a peace effort than you’d expect from reports of a “centrist victory.”
Nonetheless, as Obama’s team plans its strategy and the president’s visit to Israel, it must also look carefully at what “center” means. Continuing polls by the Peace Index project, an ongoing public opinion survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Open University of Israel, show a stable pattern: Each month, between 65 and 70 percent of Jewish Israelis say they favor renewing peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Yet only 25 to 30 percent say they believe such talks would bring peace “in the coming years.” In other words, a stable plurality of about 40 percent wants negotiations—yet despairs of them leading anywhere.
This appears to be the reservoir of voters from which Lapid drew. But note that in the last Peace Index poll before the election, just over half of Likud voters said they favor a two-state solution. The numbers fit together: Far more Israeli Jews support a return to the negotiating table than voted for parties of the center and left. Not only did Netanyahu’s resistance to peace talks put him to the right of the electorate, it placed him to the right of many of his supporters.
The last round of serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke off in 2008 when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became a lame duck. Netanyahu did his best in his last term to avoid returning to those talks where they left off—which was closer to an agreement than ever before. During the election campaign, Netanyahu avoided the issue of a two-state solution so assiduously that his party never issued a platform.
Putting these pieces together, America should insist on parameters for new talks that are very close to where Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas left off. But an American peace initiative requires more than diplomats talking in closed rooms. It requires the administration to speak directly to the Israeli public (and, yes, to the Palestinian public). During his visit to Israel, Obama should reiterate that negotiations will address Israelis’ concerns and that America will help provide the military and financial means to create a stable peace. Just as important, he must present a two-state agreement as potentially the next of Israel’s remarkable achievements.
The immediate goal should be simply to push the issues of peace, Palestinians and territory back into every political conversation. Netanyahu, heading a government of unlikely partners, will face hard choices. Merely agreeing to negotiate on these terms will infuriate the hard-liners in his coalition. Refusing to could have the same effect on centrists. Either way, it’s quite possible his parliamentary majority will crumble, bringing another election.
This is a feature, not a bug, of the parliamentary system. Israel needs a two-state agreement if it is to remain a democratic country. Letting time pass does not work in favor of an agreement, and the election results indicate that there’s no reason to do so. I’d like to assume that Obama and Kerry’s best analysts are reading the election numbers and telling them this.
Gershom Gorenberg’s most recent book is The Unmaking of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.