If the opinion polls are right, Israel’s incumbent prime minister will retain his post but face harder choices than ever
ALL the pollsters say that the party led by Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s incumbent prime minister, is set to win the most seats in a general election on January 22nd, and that he will probably, after the haggling that usually lasts several weeks, keep his post at the head of a nationalist-religious coalition government. Given Israel’s system of extreme proportional representation, whereby any party winning 2% of the national vote gets a seat in the 120-member parliament, new combinations may yet appear that could alter the shape and thrust of government. But, if the pollsters are right, the odds are that a revamped coalition led by Mr Netanyahu will be even less keen than the outgoing one was on a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
In the run-up to the election, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party merged its list with Yisrael Beitenu, hitherto led by Avigdor Lieberman, which is even more hawkish towards the Palestinians. And a new party, led by Naftali Bennett, a software tycoon who is more belligerent still, has shot up suddenly on the far right. For peaceniks in Israel and abroad, the outlook is grim.
The likely new government will probably include several ministers unequivocally opposed to Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza on any terms, and will depend on the backing of a substantial number of parliamentarians who think likewise. In a speech in 2009, Mr Netanyahu espoused the two-state solution, albeit tepidly. Unless he drops that policy or dilutes it beyond recognition, he may find it hard to keep a revamped coalition of the hawkish right together.
Mr Netanyahu had hoped that the election would not focus on such things. Both he and his closest rival, Shelly Yachimovich, who heads the Labour party, which pollsters think will probably come second, had wanted to campaign mainly on domestic issues. Ms Yachimovich, a star television presenter who entered parliament only in 2006, focused her early attacks on Mr Netanyahu’s economic policies, which, she argued, have ground down Israel’s middle class. She hoped that her campaign would revive the wave of protest against high prices and low wages that swept the country in the summer of 2011 and brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. She told her colleagues not to speak ill of Jewish settlers on the West Bank, who were potential voters for socioeconomic justice. She preferred to avoid discussion of the frozen peace process. This suited Mr Netanyahu, who vaunts Israel’s economy for doing a lot better under his watch than most countries in the rich world.
But the surge of Mr Bennett’s party, Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), has thrust the Palestinian issue back into the picture. Most pollsters predict that, whereas Likud-Beitenu will get up to 35 seats and Labour 17 or 18, Mr Bennett’s lot may get as many as 14. So Mr Netanyahu cannot ignore it. The Likud is having to match Mr Bennett’s hawkishness to stop Likud people from switching to his party, which is based on religious voters, especially settlers on the West Bank, which the Palestinians see as the core of their would-be state.
If Mr Bennett does as well as predicted and gets a plum cabinet post, the settler movement will have come into its own. The Likud has long sought both to embrace it and yet hold it at arm’s length. Mr Bennett is far less equivocal. He says that large areas of the West Bank must be annexed forthwith, circumscribing the main Palestinian towns as islands of autonomy at most. “I will do everything in my ability, for ever, to prevent a Palestinian state from being founded within the land of Israel,” he asserts in his fluent American English. “There is no perfect solution to the conflict, only imperfect ways to live together.”
Mr Bennett’s surge and Likud-Beitenu’s rightward lurch have prompted Ms Yachimovich to declare, late in the campaign, that in no circumstances will she take part in a new government led by Mr Netanyahu. But others in the centre and on the left have kept their options open. Tzipi Livni, who narrowly won the last election in 2009 but failed to form a government as head of Kadima, a centrist party that has since fizzled, is leading a new outfit called “the Movement”, which is predicted to get eight or nine seats. Neither she nor another centrist, Yair Lapid, whose party may get a few more, has echoed Ms Yachimovich’s pledge to reject Mr Netanyahu’s possible offer to join him in a ruling coalition.
They might team up with him if he were to dump his present ultra-Orthodox partners, Shas and the United Torah Judaism, which may get as many as 12 and six seats respectively. Ms Livni’s and Mr Lapid’s voters are strongly secular. Both their parties campaign for an end to the wholesale exemption of ultra-Orthodox young men from military service. The ultra-Orthodox, for their part, breathe dire threats that they might switch to Ms Yachimovich’s side and abandon Mr Netanyahu if he were to flout their wishes on the draft.
As for the Palestinians, more and more of them speak of ending their quest for independence and are instead demanding one-man-one-vote in a single state. The Israeli left and its friends abroad argue that, if Israel continues to occupy the Palestinian territories or annexes them as part of a Greater Israel but denies the Palestinians full political rights, Israel’s claim to be a democracy will evaporate. But if the Palestinians were granted such rights, Israel would lose its Zionist essence as a Jewish state. In-deed, Israel’s left has long warned that Israel’s friends abroad may begin to regard it as an apartheid state along the lines of South Africa, with all the debilitating results of international isolation and boycott.
Most Israelis still regard the United States as the chief guarantor of their security. But a growing number of Israeli politicians on the right now argue that, if Israel “stands firm”, Western governments will quietly acquiesce in the Palestinians’ failure to get a proper state, just as most Basques and Kurds have had to make do with autonomy at best rather than outright independence. Moshe Feiglin, a vociferous Likudnik who is likely to get a seat in parliament, says that Palestinians on the West Bank should be encouraged to emigrate—with cash incentives to do so. Another outspoken newcomer, Yair Shamir, son of a prime minister and a likely government minister, says Israel should ignore Western finger-wagging. It no longer needs America and Europe, he recently told prospective voters; it can find new friends and trading partners in China, India, Russia and elsewhere in Asia.
We can stand alone
It is an open question whether Mr Netanyahu thinks he can get away with continually cocking a snook at governments in the West, in particular America’s, that have become increasingly frustrated by what they see as Israel’s failure to re-engage sincerely in the peace process. On January 14th a well-informed American journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, reported some trenchant criticism of Mr Netanyahu by Barack Obama. “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are,” the president was quoted as saying. Mr Obama, Mr Goldberg disclosed, thinks that with “each new settlement announcement Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation”.
An aide to the Israeli prime minister testily retorted that Mr Netanyahu would “continue to resist pressure from America and other countries” and would “make no compromise that will harm its citizens’ security”. Yisrael Hayom, Israel’s most widely read newspaper, owned by Sheldon Adelson, an American casino magnate who vilifies Mr Obama, quoted Likud officials accusing him of “trying to interfere in the elections”.
Could Mr Netanyahu, if he retains power, change his tune? He has been telling his voters that his chief mission as prime minister is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Some say he might be persuaded to revert to a genuine pursuit of the two-state solution if, as a quid pro quo, America managed to persuade Iran, by whatever means, to give up its nuclear ambitions. And if a string of neighbouring Arab states turned more menacingly hostile, he might feel obliged to change his mind. But as things stand, the prospect of peace with the Palestinians looks remote. Israel’s coming election may make it even more so.