Analysis: Why Israelis chose Netanyahu
Jerusalem — It’s a mystery to many: Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign gained steam when he ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state, and he seems determined to continue settling occupied land with Jews.
So why would Israelis again back policies that promise friction of all kinds — and will dramatically dilute the Jewish character of their hard-won state by making it eventually inseparable from the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank?
The answer lies in the details of a conundrum so complicated that the dynamics of democracy seem hardly able to contain it. Tellingly, perhaps, the campaign did not even focus on the grand strategic issue that is now presented as having been decided: Instead the opposition pledged to address bread-and-butter issues, like the high cost of living.
The outcome may be different under circumstances that force the Palestinian issue to the table. If international boycott initiatives start exacting an economic price on a country that appreciates its high standard of living, or if the Europeans who are Israel’s top trading partners take off the gloves. Or if the Palestinians rebel, creating a major security headache, or the United States steps in with peace proposals backed by muscle.
Another game-changer would be if the moderate opposition united behind a truly compelling candidate after a succession of leaders who were simply not perceived by enough people as ready for prime time. The last Labor Party leader to achieve an effective brand of gravitas was one-time military chief Ehud Barak, who won in 1999.
Here are some issues that help explain the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, and parties apparently willing to back him won another 37 for a possible majority:
The West Bank is valuable, the region menacing
Very few Israelis see the 48-year-old West Bank occupation as purely a nationalist conceit, greedy and anti-Palestinian, though that narrative certainly has currency in the region and around the world. From a Palestinian perspective, the West Bank and Gaza Strip combined are just about a fifth of historic Palestine — the bare minimum that is acceptable from their perspective in order to formally accept the existence of Israel.
But what Israelis see is a pre-1967 border that is basically just a cease-fire line from the 1948-49 war that established the country. Without the West Bank, Israel is only about 10 miles (15 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point. The strategic highland looms over Israeli cities, visible on a clear day from the outskirts of Tel Aviv and surrounding Jerusalem on three sides. They fear that if their army clears out it will be replaced not by peaceful Palestinian moderates but more menacing forces like Hamas — which took over the Gaza Strip soon after Israel handed it fully to the Palestinian autonomy government of Mahmoud Abbas in 2005.
The fact that Islamic State militants are menacing the region does not help, and was exploited by Netanyahu during a campaign in which he portrayed the militants in one TV ad as charging toward Jerusalem, with naive Israeli leftists even helpfully pointing the way.
Peace seems unlikely anyway
On several occasions Israeli governments have offered the Palestinians statehood on close to all of the West Bank and Gaza. A quarter century’s worth of futile negotiations appears to stem from Israel’s refusal to accept a return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who potentially number in the millions, and from the tremendous difficulty of sharing the holy city Jerusalem. The idea of a border running right through the it — with Palestinian police controlling entrances to the Old City a stone’s throw from downtown pubs and hotels — is unfathomable to many Israelis.
Because so few think a peace deal is likely, the opposition runs away from the issue. If elected they might offer types of concessions: perhaps a unilateral pullout from some areas; maybe a push for an interim deal which today the Palestinians refuse to contemplate; in any case, a freeze on settlements. But the issue is so complicated that they have found their position difficult to sell. Many Israelis console themselves with the islands of Palestinian autonomy established in the 1990s in the West Bank: perhaps they might suffice to make the “demographic issue” go away.
The tribal factor
Israel’s fractured politics leave little room for maneuver. A look at the electoral map shows a huge proportion of parliament that is almost guaranteed to go to sectarian and ethnic interests. More than a third of the new parliament will be occupied by parties that target certain groups and have a near-guaranteed vote that has little to do with the Palestinian issue: Israeli Arabs, Russian immigrants, traditionally-inclined Sephardic Jews and different shades of religious Jews.
Even the major parties, which theoretically stand for ideology, to a degree appeal to specific groups. This is especially true of Likud, which has a tremendously loyal base among working-class Israelis who hail from the Arab world and tend to be hawkish. They still resent the leftist establishment that founded Israel for the reception they got as immigrants a half-century ago. Many speak of the party as a “home” that is “in our blood” and cannot conceivably be “betrayed.” On top of that, the religious sector, aligned with the right, has the country’s highest birthrate by far, and so can be expected to constantly add to its automatic storehouse of votes.
Netanyahu, known popularly as Bibi, is a brilliant campaigner who not only does and says what it takes to get elected but seems comfortable doing so. In the final week of the campaign he realized that the perception of victory, in Israel’s fragmented political space, would depend more on his party than his bloc. So he tacked to the right, taking votes from his nationalist ally, the Jewish Home.
On Tuesday, that meant issuing dire warnings that Israeli Arab citizens were streaming to the polls, which shocked many Israelis and brought charges of racism. A few days earlier, he had sounded the alarm against an international conspiracy supposedly amassed to “topple” him. He also energized his base by declaring that if re-elected he would never allow a Palestinian state — walking away from a 2009 declaration that itself had reversed his previous position. But so profound is the cynicism surrounding Israeli politics that many people view the zigzags as little more than political sport.
Also effective was Netanyahu’s controversial appearance two weeks ago on Capitol Hill, where he argued against President Barack Obama’s supposedly impending nuclear deal with Iran. Mortified, the Israeli opposition could not disagree with the substance of his speech — but warned of a crisis with the United States. The relatively polite response from the U.S. administration was, to Netanyahu’s fans at least, another sign that he has things well in hand.