Israel’s surprising election results confused the critics and astounded the analysts. Many predicted apathy and were shocked by the numbers: Voter turnout for the Jan. 22 parliamentary election was over 66 percent—the highest in more than a decade. The vast majority forecasted a sweep for the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a continued trend toward the right, but centrist newcomer Yair Lapid stole the spotlight as Netanyahu narrowly won a third term.
The international media were quick to conclude that Israelis voted for peace, with headlines such as, “Rise of Israeli centrist raises hopes for peace,” “Election takes Israel’s finger off trigger for war with Iran,” and “Charismatic leader helps Israel turn toward the center.”
This election, however, was not about reviving stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians or unrest just beyond Israel’s borders. It did not revolve around Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The parties that gained seats staked their campaigns on domestic matters, such as affordable housing and ending the draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews, while the few parties that challenged the foreign policy status quo lost seats in the 19th Knesset.
Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government with a weakened Likud presence, but his bigger challenge may be dealing with a president of the United States emboldened in a second term. The American elections in November may prove more troublesome for Netanyahu’s foreign policy than the Israeli elections in January.
Less than a week before Israelis went to the polls, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Bloomberg news service sparked controversy when he quoted President Obama as saying, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Alluding to private conversations with the president (that the White House neither confirmed nor denied), Goldberg wrote, “In Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path towards near-total isolation.” He said Obama believes “Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.”
Netanyahu’s decision to expand settlement construction to E-1, an area that would effectively prevent Palestinians from connecting two key cities in a future sovereign state, sparked sharp criticism. The bold move came after Palestinians requested and received United Nations recognition of a de facto state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
According to Goldberg, Obama “didn’t even bother getting angry,” adding that “this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect.”
The timing and tone of the remarks didn’t sit well with a number of Israeli pundits. The Jerusalem Post’s Michael Freund accused Obama of “interfering in the Jewish state’s election campaign” with remarks that were “eerily reminiscent of the colonial mindset.”
When asked by The Jerusalem Post about Obama’s pointed criticism, Netanyahu’s response was more diplomatic: “Well, I’m sure President Obama understands that only Israel’s sovereign and elected government can determine Israel’s vital national interests, especially its security.”
On the surface, it appears as if the Israeli electorate may have listened to Obama’s cautionary words. Against predictions, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party won a paltry 31 Knesset seats (compared to 42 combined seats during the 2009 election) while the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) came in a surprising second with 19 of Parliament’s 120 seats.
The leader of the party that wins the most votes has the complex task of forming a broad-based coalition to keep control of the Parliament, and all eyes turned to Yair Lapid, the 49-year-old leader of the new centrist party and a former talk show host known for his charisma and good looks. Netanyahu will likely offer Lapid one of three ministries—foreign, education, or finance—in exchange for joining the prime minister’s coalition.
While Lapid staked his campaign on economic woes (the rising cost of living amid a growing budget deficit), he claims he will not join Netanyahu’s government unless the prime minister commits to reviving stalled peace negotiations with Palestinians. But a closer examination of his foreign policy reveals a mindset closely aligned with Netanyahu. “Jerusalem belongs to the people of Israel and no one else,” Lapid wrote on his Facebook page, followed by assertions that the Arab people don’t want peace.
The final status of Jerusalem is a key sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and Obama sees little room for compromise. “The biggest issue between Israel and the United States is clearly the issue of settlements,” Max Singer, co-founder of the Hudson Institute and an expert at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told me.
“There are 300,000 Israelis in Jerusalem living in what Obama would call settlements. It’s a disagreement that’s fundamental and cannot change,” he said. Singer added that most Israelis favor dismantling “the most extreme settlements”—those with fewer Israelis that are in the middle of areas surrounded by Palestinians—but against compromising Jerusalem and suburban communities near the border.
While far from being a “hawk,” Lapid has distanced himself from the left and voiced his support for the settlement blocs. Last October, he delivered a foreign policy speech in Ariel, a controversial settlement 12 miles into the West Bank. “There is no map on which Ariel is not a part of the State of Israel,” Lapid said. “You don’t come to negotiations only with an olive branch, the way the left does, or only with a gun, the way the right does. You come to find solutions. We’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with.”
Prior to the November U.S. election, the Middle East Forum’s Daniel Pipes predicted “the coldest treatment of Israel ever by a U.S. president” should Obama get reelected. This era has begun, he noted, citing the nominations of three senior figures—John Kerry for secretary of state, John Brennan for the CIA, and Chuck Hagel for defense—who “range from clueless about Israel to hostile toward it.”
Kerry has labeled the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the root cause of turmoil in the Middle East and Africa—a notion Netanyahu staunchly rebuffs—and is already suggesting renewed talks in the near future.
Pipes adds to his list of concerns the president’s recent approval to give advanced weapons to Egypt’s Islamist government (whose newly elected president referred to Jews and Israelis as descendants of apes and pigs in 2010) and past connections to notable Palestinian extremists. He finds little fault with Obama’s first-term policy decisions pertaining to Israel but warns of stormy days ahead.
“I think it has mostly to do with Obama finding his inner anti-Zionist. If anything, it appears that Netanyahu is moving more leftwards, more accommodating to Obama rather than less. But I have a sense that Obama is deeply sympathetic to the Palestinians and has had to bury this for electoral reasons and now is free to indulge it,” Pipes told me.
If this is the case, Obama may have substantial support among world powers for his Middle East agenda. A recent report on human rights released by the British Foreign Office includes Israel on a list of 28 countries of concern, alongside notable offenders Iran and Bahrain. Illegal settlement construction and the recent Gaza escalation topped the list of alleged offenses.
The Palestinian Authority has threatened to take its complaints about Israel to the International Criminal Court.
Both Pipes and Singer pointed to the looming issue they say trumps all others and has the potential either to unite the two leaders or drive them further apart: Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu has made Iran his signature cause, and President Obama has pledged to prevent the rogue nation from obtaining nuclear weapon capabilities.
Whether the two countries can agree on what to do about the Iranian problem remains to be seen. “The United States has said that it’s absolutely determined that Iran not get nuclear weapons,” Singer said. “Well, this is the four years that will determine if they do.” We know this much for certain: It promises to be an interesting four years.