The U.S. and the Aftermath of the Israeli Elections

By | May 06, 2019
Israel, Latest

In Israel, the April elections are over. President Rivlin has sworn in the 21st Knesset and given Prime Minister Netanyahu a month to form the next government of Israel. Two main options appear viable—a right-wing coalition formed from 65 out of 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, or a centrist coalition of at least 70 of the 120 seats. Several key issues still hang in the balance, including the possible impact of the Trump administration’s plan for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The election results had positives for the mainstream Israeli public, especially the reemergence of a two-party majority and consequent marginalizing of some radical parties. But there were negatives as well, including the inclusion of a previously banned Kahanist far-right group and the low turnout of Israeli Arab voters. With the U.S. set to release its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, a major take-away from the elections is an opportunity for the U.S. to influence the composition and policies of the new Israeli government.

The good news is the reemergence of a two-party majority. Despite the frustration felt by many Israelis who voted for the centrist Blue-White challengers (led by three former Chiefs of Staff), only to see Netanyahu win again, the results show greater unanimity than the ugly and divisive campaign rhetoric would indicate. The two major parties between them won a solid majority of 60 percent, a return to the pattern of the 1980s (when Labor and Likud were neck and neck) rather than the chaotic landscape of recent elections when the two largest parties barely had 40 percent of the vote between them. On national security and foreign policy, as well as economic and social issues, the more radical parties of the left and right did poorly. More Israelis apparently want broad parties with a practical, center or center-right approach.

True, the entire spectrum has shifted well to the right: the legacy of Oslo and the subsequent bloodshed still lingers. In 1993, the parties that shook hands with Arafat—Labor and the more left-wing Meretz—had 56 Knesset seats between them (44 and 12). Today, a generation later, they now have 10 (6 and 4). Labor, the party of Israel’s founding fathers, ended up with 5 percent of the vote.

And yet the hard right did not do well either—two out of its three parties failed to cross the necessary 3.25 percent threshold and will not be in the next Knesset (the New Right and the bizarre Identity Party, which mixed hard-core religious nationalism with libertarian issues such as cannabis legalization.)

On the negative side, the election results could give disproportionate influence to the third far-right party, the Union of the Right, which has a component from the former Kahanist party which is banned in Israel and remains on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. With only six seats, this party can nevertheless try to dictate to Likud—because without them Netanyahu will not have the 61 seats necessary for a parliamentary majority.

Another negative is the decline in Israeli Arab voter turnout, at a historic low of 49 percent. Partly an angry response to the “nationality law” and to attempts by Netanyahu to marginalize them (some Likud activists placed cameras in Arab voting stations, “to monitor fraud”), this was also a sign of frustration with the Israeli Arab political leadership, its internal fissures and its failure to deliver much in the way of social services. Arab citizens’ political participation and equality before the law is one of Israel’s counters to the charge of apartheid; inclusive statements and policies will be needed by the new government to reverse this alienation.

Netanyahu’s path to a coalition government is rocky. The Union’s refusal to even discuss Trump’s peace plan may force Netanyahu to choose between his political partners on the right and Israel’s strategic ally, and perhaps to ask Blue-White to join him in a unity cabinet (which at the moment they publicly refuse to do). Whether or not this actually happens may depend upon the timing and manner of the “roll out” of Trump’s proposals.

Netanyahu’s coalition-making efforts may founder on another rock. With five seats, Yisrael Beitenu—essentially a party of Russian-speaking immigrants, led by political heavyweight Avigdor Liberman— is also in a position to deny Netanyahu his requisite majority. Liberman supports a right-wing narrow government led by Netanyahu. But he disagrees with other Netanyahu coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox parties, over the issue of their traditional exemption from military service. For many young Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox exemption is one of the most vexing aspects of the horse-trading coalition politics (what could have been called, if it were not so off-key, the Israeli equivalent of American “pork barrel” giveaways). Liberman will therefore relish the opportunity to emerge as their champion in this matter.

The U.S. and its much-promised peace plan will influence Netanyahu’s task of building a coalition government. There are dangers here for regional stability. The likely flat-out Palestinian rejection of the “deal of the century” may give the Israeli far right a justification for pushing the new coalition to annex some areas of the West Bank, following the precedent set in the Golan—e.g., the Gush Etzion bloc or Jerusalem exurbs like Maale Adumim and Beitar Illit. The drama of coalition negotiations may lead to such provocative steps being pushed forward.

The United States can play a positive role at this delicate time, prior to the release of its peace plan. It should publicly state that annexation of any part of the West Bank would be rejected by it and the international community, while also calling on the Palestinian Authority to engage with the elected government of Israel. Private messages to Netanyahu, which he could then share with putative coalition partners, should specify the negative consequences of international isolation and intensified international boycotts that would flow from annexation.

The table is set for Israeli coalition negotiations that will influence the country, its relations with the Palestinians and the entire region. The Trump administration has brought the U.S. to a heightened stage of influence in Israeli politics. Now will be the time to see if the U.S. can seize the moment to help its ally Israel avoid mistakes and realize benefits that its democratic, rule-of-law society has long sought.

Eran Lerman, former Deputy National Security Advisor of Israel, is Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Robert Silverman, former political counselor of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, is President of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance.

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