Netanyahu's ominous victory not the brand of politics Israel expected
WASHINGTON -- The last decade has been trying for liberals who support the existence of a democratic Jewish state and believe that Palestinians have a right to self-determination within a state of their own. Tuesday's election in Israel made the liberal path even rockier, both inside the country and in the United States.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's victory was not overwhelming, but it was decisive. The country is split in two, but not in equal halves.
Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party and the upstart Blue and White Party received virtually the same vote. This was a genuine achievement for Benny Gantz, the former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff who is the new party's leader.
But Gantz's showing came largely at the expense of Israel's left and liberal parties. The Labor Party, which once dominated Israel's politics, was reduced, on the latest count, to just six parliamentary seats out of 120. On Labor's left, the Meretz Party secured only four. To put this in perspective, the two parties together held 56 seats in 1992.
As a result, Netanyahu's likely governing coalition that includes other right-wingers and religious parties seems on track to win roughly 65 seats, hardly an overwhelming majority but enough to keep him in power.
The failure of the left is a commentary on the mood of Israelis who have largely given up hope for accommodation with Palestinians. The country's electorate is often seen as divided among hawks, doves and "security hawks," essentially Israel's swing voters. Unlike the conventional hawks, the security hawks are open to reaching agreement with Palestinians if they see doing so as consistent with Israel's safety. They move right when they see such an accord as impossible.
This has created a kind of vicious cycle: If Palestinian leaders cannot deliver a deal palatable to Israelis, Israeli voters lose hope in its possibility and look for someone who can manage endless conflict. Netanyahu is on the verge of becoming Israel's longest-serving prime minister by being viewed as that man.
But the lurch to the right in Israel further hardens views on the Palestinian side. Virtually everything Netanyahu does makes conciliation even less likely. His end-of-campaign pledge to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank would, if carried out, be "the final death knell for a two-state process," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States. "That has to distress anybody who wants a democratic Jewish state and a two-state solution."
For pro-Israel liberals, the election will aggravate a growing estrangement. "We're walking a very delicate tightrope," Jacobs said in an interview. "We are deeply committed to the state of Israel, to its founding promise, and we see policies that are quite antithetical to us and to that promise." Within the Democratic Party, an already fractious debate will become even more heated.
Gantz, joined by two other former generals in a campaign that made no promises of a peace deal anytime soon, had reason to hope that more of the security hawks would vote his way. But he failed to make the inroads into the center-right he needed.