Obama 1; Netanyahu 0

Jan 23 2013 @ 12:37pm

Peter Beinart explains what the Israeli election results may mean for the US:

A weaker Israeli government does Obama little good right away. For the past four years, Israel has boasted a prime minister strong enough to move boldly toward a two-state deal, but uninterested in doing so. Now it has a prime minister who lacks not only the ideological desire, but perhaps also the political strength. But Netanyahu’s weakness also means he’ll be less able to fend Obama off if the White House unveils a peace initiative. To the contrary, the more actively engaged Obama’s new foreign policy team becomes on the Palestinian issue, the shorter Netanyahu’s political life span will be. Right-leaning commentators sometimes claim that public disagreements between America and Israel stiffen Israeli spines and push them to the right. But in truth, such intervention helped topple Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and Netanyahu himself in 1999. And while it’s unlikely it was the key factor, Obama’s recent dissing of Netanyahu probably played some role in his last minute drop in support.

The results do make Remnick look a little excitable and by inference, me too. But the story is complicated. It’s not that the hard right did not do well. Jewish Home got eleven seats, just shy of Labor’s. What trumped that was a new party, “There Is A Future” (which Goldblog drily notes is “such a Jewish name … Optimistic, but threaded with melancholy”). It focused on domestic bread-and-butter issues, and widespread resentment of the fecund but largely molly-coddled haredim. Goldblog – surprise! – doubts much progress will be made on the peace process or the settlements:

A Netanyahu-Bennett-Lapid coalition would be far more likely to take bold action against another of Israel’s threats, the rise of the ultra-Orthodox, than to take on the peace process. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Haredi men don’t serve in the army and are on the public dole so that they can pursue full-time religious studies. And Haredi political parties are becoming more radical (ayatollah-like, in some ways), demanding sex segregation on public buses and generally trying to erase the line dividing synagogue from state. Lapid’s popularity is derived in large part from his stalwart stance against the privileges accrued by the ultra-Orthodox.

Remnick agrees that there are still many roadblocks to peace:

In the end, these election results suggest that there is greater fight in the center-left than any of the pre-election polls and journalism—my own included—suggested. Which is good news—but limited good news. Netanyahu, barring some freak of coalition infighting, will still be Prime Minister; the majority in the Knesset will still be conservative, including members of the annexationist far right; and the calculus standing in the way of a secure and decent end to occupation persists.

Michael Koplow examines the prime minister’s predicament:

Nobody should underestimate just how much pressure Netanyahu is now under from his own side, let alone from the parties on the left of the spectrum that would like nothing more than to bring him down. Netanyahu is in a very difficult spot, and while I am relatively sure he will be able to form a coalition and serve as prime minister, don’t expect it to last very long.

But Zvika Krieger adds:

The problem is that the parties as they stand now have little chance of presenting a viable alternative to Netanyahu. Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich (the Labor party leader, also a former journalist) are not seen as realistic candidates to be prime minister; in this election, they largely coasted off of issues related to the 2011 economic protests in Israel, but had little, if anything, to say on broader issues of peace and security. “A TV anchor can’t be prime minister; it just doesn’t work in Israel,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

Brian Ulrich frames things differently:

Netanyahu’s bloc failed to meet expectations and the new government will probably last for only a couple of years, but this is far from the near-defeat for the incumbent prime minister some are presenting.

That sounds judicious to me, but I am not an expert. And when even the Washington Post announces that Netanyahu has been weakened substantially, it does seem to me to suggest that the Israeli public is not as obsessed as Bibi is about the allegedly existential threat of Iran. If it really were that existential, wouldn’t it have dominated the entire election? Ditto, alas, the settlements. By all accounts, they weren’t much of an issue. But for Netanyahu, in his relationship with the US, they are a huge issue. So on both his over-riding ambitions – war against Iran and permanent control of the West Bank through ethnic social engineering – Netanyahu is now much weaker vis-a-vis Obama.

Over the last four years, Netanyahu has won almost every single tactical victory over the American president. But strategically, Obama now has the upper hand, especially after his recent statement that Israel was not doing what is in its best interests did not backfire in Israel and may even have helped undermine Netanyahu.

Bibi is still highly likely to be prime minister for a while, but also as decapitalized by his re-election as Obama was recapitalized by his. That leaves an opening. In my view, the president and next secretary of state should now lay out a detailed, mapped, two-state division that the US supports and present it to both Fatah and Jerusalem. If Jerusalem balks, the US should switch its vote at the UN to abstain on Palestinian statehood. If the PA balks, we’ll discover something important about them: their willingness to sacrifice for a state alongside and at peace with a Jewish one. Hamas? Leave them out of it for a while, or open up a back-channel. But as Obama’s power waxes and Netanyahu’s wanes, it would be crazy not to seize the moment.

And that moment is defined by a core fact: the Israeli public is clearly not on the same page as America’s neoconservatives right now, not as fixated on the same things they are, and more concerned about their own core well-being than geopolitics or apocalyptic family psychodramas. What the American electorate just told the GOP, the Israeli electorate just told its own far-right government: moderate or get out of the way. Which could be put more simply.

Meep meep.