Israel’s Tribal Impasse Behind Netanyahu’s Dramatic Victory - Financial Times | March 18th 2015
Having won re-election, Benjamin Netanyahu is set to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, overtaking founding father David Ben-Gurion.
A straightforward rightist grouping is his simplest option in forming a coalition. As well as his Likud party, it would include settler- dominated Jewish Home, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultraorthodox parties and the soft-right Kulanu .
This offers a narrow majority but one that appears relatively homogenous and stable. Mr Netanyahu could also try to incorporate the centrist party, Yesh Atid (a former coalition partner), or attempt a grand coalition with the centre-left Zionist Union of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, his election opponents.
For Mr Herzog, the opposition leader, the pathway to a non-rightist governing majority was always more treacherous — especially given his apparent adherence to the convention of excluding the parties comprising predominantly Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are non-Zionist, from centre-left coalitions.
Israeli electoral politics is stuck in a demographic, almost tribal, impasse. It is best viewed as consisting of five blocs: right, centre left, centre, ultraorthodox and Palestinian Israelis. Three of the five are normally needed for a majority. The right’s success is based on the fact that it is a more natural ally for the ultraorthodox and for enough of the centre. The centre-left refuses alliances with the representatives of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, encumbering itself with a permanent electoral obstacle.
This is the right’s most consistent victory: the effective denial of legitimacy to parties representing Palestinian-Israelis, who make up almost 20 per cent of the nation’s citizens. The predominantly Arab Joint List, formed in response to a new four-seat threshold to enter the Knesset, is now the third-largest party. But it was automatically ignored in coalition calculations, rendering its representatives invisible.
So the first piece of clarity to emerge from this result is for Palestinian citizens living in Israel proper: the message is one of continued
marginalisation. It was brought home powerfully by Mr Netanyahu himself, warning in an election-day video that droves of Arabs were descending on the polls and had to be counterbalanced. Remember, this is a prime minister talking about his own citizens exercising their most basic democratic right. Just imagine if such a comment were made by a European leader about Jewish or black voters.
The second point of clarity to emerge is for Palestinians living beyond the Green Line: in the occupied territories, in refugee camps and in the diaspora. Mr Netanyahu won his dramatic victory by cannibalising the votes of rightwing allies: the far-right Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu parties lost seats to Likud. Mr Netanyahu chose to speak at a last-minute rally called by the settler movement, and later disavowed his supposed commitment to a two-state solution pledging that under his leadership there would be no Palestinian state.
Even if his rhetorical embrace of two states always rang hollow given his policies, it facilitated the continuation of a make-believe peace process. Ehud Barak, the former Labor prime minister, liked to boast that he had unmasked the true face of Yassir Arafat, the former Palestinian leader. Mr Netanyahu appears to have gone one step further, unmasking his own true face as a peace rejectionist. As to whether the Palestinians can develop more effective strategies peacefully to leverage his rejection of the international consensus on two states and likely increased isolation: scepticism would be well advised.
Mr Netanyahu’s re-election will be met with little enthusiasm in western capitals, but it provides clarity. He will have to decide whether he wants to stand alone against Israel’s western allies on both the Palestinian question and the prospective P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. America and Europe will have to decide how much further to indulge a troublesome ally for which impunity has encouraged reckless and at times self- destructive behaviour. Some kind of reassessment appears inevitable.
The opposition again attempted to unseat Mr Netanyahu without offering a national security alternative, trying to sidestep his fear- mongering by focusing on widespread socio-economic insecurities. They failed. Both they and Israel’s lead trading partners in Europe have facilitated his campaign of successfully defying two states by de-linking Israel’s economic standing from issues of peace and occupation. Should that defiance become unsuccessful, voters might soon find themselves back at the polls — and rethinking their choices.