Israel’s Election Could Be Bad News for Netanyahu

Tuesday’s election leaves the peace process on life-support, but that's better than a peace process that's dead.

Lior Mizrahi/Getty

Never have I been happier to be wrong than in the case of the Israeli elections. And if ever there was a contest that required "unskewed" polls, it was this one.

Bibi Netanyahu called for an early vote from an apparent position of unassailable strength. His American consultant Arthur Finkelstein—onetime adviser to the race-baiting, gay-hating Jesse Helms and the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond--previously led Bibi down the road to defeat in 1999. During that election, I was involved in the campaign of the victorious Ehud Barak, who with Bill Clinton came achingly close to a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Finkelstein is a peculiar sort, a gay man who married his partner of 40 years in 2005 but super–charged his career decades ago by laboring for the homophobic National Political Action Committee. This time, he brashly predicted that Netanyahu's revamped Likud, merged with the hardline Beiteinu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a purveyor of Arab prejudice, would capture 47 seats.

When the exit polls hit just after the real polls closed, Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Finklestein were mugged by reality. They lost seats as predicted to the explicitly anti-peace party of Naftali Bennett, once Bibi's chief of staff. If the right had captured a commanding majority, Bennett's rise would have pushed the resulting coalition toward the rejectionist extreme. That didn't happen. Instead turnout soared. The Israeli public was unwilling to abide a very un-Zionist society of rampant economic and social injustice–-or to imbibe the hemlock of renouncing a peace settlement in favor of proliferating settlements at all costs across an increasingly isolated, potentially apartheid Israel.

Voters pulled back from the right, but they didn't rush to the left. They decided not to decide—except to rebuke the arrogance of Netanyahu. According to the exit polls, Likud-Beiteinu won only 31 seats. With the rest of its likely allies, some of them more than likely to prove uncertain allies, the Netanyahu coalition is projected to hold a wafer-thin majority of 61 to 59 in the Knesset.

The exact number of seats may change as the ballots are actually counted, but not by much. If Bibi forms the government, at this point the more probable outcome, it could be short-lived. He may calculate that it's prudent to bring in moderates and even some liberals rather than leaving himself hostage to an unstable, fractious coalition where marginal defections could bring him down at any time. As the results came in, he said: "I [will] form as broad a government as possible.” Yet it may be impossible to cobble together an assembly of near–opposites that both controls a more commanding majority and lasts more than a few months.

In any event, the numbers certainly don't add up to a decisive shift toward the hard right. This may mean a peace process on life-support, but that's better than a peace process that's dead. Alternatively, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party—which is not ideologically hostile to a two-state solution—could join with centrists, the traditional left of Labor and the new left of Yesh Atid, a party that campaigned against the paralysis of the old politics.

That coalition too would face formidable internal contradictions on the issue of a secular versus an increasingly religious state. For example, how would it deal with the Israeli Supreme Court's ruling mandating an end to the widespread ultra-Orthodox exemption from mandatory military service? But the controversy could be compromised or postponed and serious negotiations could be resumed with the Palestinians. It would then be up to them to measure up to what might be a last opportunity for progress.

Israeli politics will now devolve into a fierce period of horse-trading, double dealing, and speculation. In the end, the odds are that the Obama administration will have a more realistic chance of advancing the peace process—and of staying an attack on Iran and unless and until it becomes absolutely necessary.

Despite frustrations with negotiations that don't succeed, despite temptations to extremist reaction, the democratic Jewish state so many of us prize has not lurched into creating a genuine existential threat to itself. So while I was right about the 2012 election here at home, I fortunately miscalled the 2013 election half a world away in Israel. No one won there; the results are a muddle. But at least Obama didn't lose—and neither did Israel.