Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu won a big election Tuesday, but he won ugly by staking out a new position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is likely to harm his nation in the months ahead.
A reckoning is coming—faster than expected—for Netanyahu, his Likud Party and maybe even for the State of Israel itself.
Complete returns showed that Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 29 seats in the Knesset to 24 seats for the Zionist Union (formerly Labor) Party headed by Isaac Herzog, who ran a more spirited campaign than expected but almost certainly fell short of the support necessary to form a government.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, whose job consists mostly of presiding over elections, said not long after the polls closed that he wants a coalition government and has given Netanyahu, Herzog and the other party leaders a couple of days to engage in a frenzy of (largely unconsummated) deal-making. But Herzog’s parliamentary math problem got worse as the evening wore on, and it’s hard to see where he finds the “mandates” (seats) to prevail.
One big surprise was the performance of the Joint List, a coalition of usually fractious Arab parties that won 13 seats and finished third, far better than Arab Israelis ever have in the past. But their influence will be limited because Arab parties traditionally refuse to join the government so as to avoid being complicit in official Israeli policy that they loathe.
As the returns came in, the center-left and other critics of Netanyahu held out hope that Moshe Kahlon—whose center-right Kulanu Party won 10 seats—would nurse his anger at Netanyahu (in whose government he once served) and side with Zionist Union. But even that would be unlikely to yield enough seats to oust Netanyahu. The small religious parties that often hold the balance of power faded amid Bibi’s last-minute panicky bid for right-wing votes.
That panic had a purpose. Netanyahu came back from the dead by doing something politicians almost never do—predicting his own defeat. He told base voters that he would lose if they didn’t abandon far-right-winger Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayeudi Party and flock back to Likud. Instead of trying to hide his desperation, he flaunted (or contrived) it, to great political effect, winning by several seats more than expected.
Like George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection campaign against John Kerry in the aftermath of 9/11, Netanyahu wielded security issues as a polarizing political weapon, overcoming personal unpopularity and a mediocre economic record with a campaign based largely on fear. It worked.
But at what cost? In the days before the election, Netanyahu accused the opposition of being manipulated by Americans, insulted Arabs for simply voting, doubled down on support for settlements in East Jerusalem and—most significantly—said there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, thereby confirming a view that critics always suspected he harbored.
Cynical about their politicians, some Israeli pundits predicted that Netanyahu would slip away from his new line, just as he this week repudiated his famous 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University in which he proclaimed, “Let us make peace,” and endorsed a two-state solution.
Bibi can try, but Monday’s comment set his feet in cement. “I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu told a website owned by his most generous supporter, American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Should he go back on this pledge, his right-wing supporters would desert him and he would be forced to call another election next year that he would likely lose.
Netanyahu knows that intransigence on the Palestinians is harmful to his purported security priority—confronting a nuclear Iran. He knows that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and other countries can’t ally with Israel against Iran until he makes peace with the Palestinians. But he was willing to do what it takes to win.
Now the rest of the world will do what it takes to punish his government. That means that the “BDS” movement (Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions) will likely move from the (sometimes anti-Semitic) fringe closer to the center of the debate on college campuses and in international forums. As the Palestinians pursue their case globally with more finesse than they once had, the Israeli policy—shorn of efforts to achieve peace—will look increasingly illegitimate.
And Bibi and Likud might be in for a rude shock at the United Nations. On Tuesday, moderate Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that it was “hard to imagine” there would be no consequences from Netanyahu’s new one-state views.
Bibi has placed all his chips on the Republican Congress, which has no say over how the U.S. votes in the U.N. Schiff—who often reflects the view of the White House—hinted that the Obama administration might consider selectively lifting the American veto in the Security Council that has protected Israel for more than six decades.
While the U.S. will no doubt continue to veto the most obnoxious U.N. resolutions, others (like those based on comments of U.S. officials about the need for a two-state solution) are now more likely to pass with the tacit support of the U.S., opening a new chapter in international pressure on Israel.
Beset by European boycotts, rebuked by international tribunals, estranged from the president of the United States—it’s not a pretty picture of the fate of America’s closest ally in the region.
But that might be the fallout from the most bruising and consequential Israeli election in many years.