Here’s a pop quiz for those who have been too busy to notice the surprising results of last week’s Israeli election: Was the key issue (1) Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s testy relationship with President Obama; (2) whether Israel should bomb Iran’s nuclear sites; or (3) whether to revive the mummified peace process?
Answer: None of the above. Issues of war and peace had little to do with the sliding support for Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. (He’ll still be prime minister but will have to work hard to woo new coalition partners.) Nor did these issues propel the rise of the new centrist star, Yair Lapid, a young, attractive TV personality whose new party came in an unexpected second. The newcomer’s big issue was his promise to halt subsidies and military exemptions granted to thousands of ultrareligious Israelis.
This is further evidence that Israelis have lost faith in the peace process and are focused on domestic problems. But now that the Israeli (as well as the U.S.) election season is over, those sidelined issues will force themselves back to the fore.
The Israeli press is already speculating about how Netanyahu can repair his famously strained relations with Obama. “Netanyahu’s support for Mitt Romney was a mistake,” the prominent Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea said in a conference call organized by the Israel Policy Forum. “He believed a Romney victory would increase the chance of a U.S. attack on Iran and decrease the pressure on the Israel-Palestinian issue. Now he has no option (but to) deal with Barack Hussein Obama.”
Barnea continued: “Bibi will do his best to soothe Obama without any concessions.” Israelis are already speculating about what role the untried Lapid might play in repairing the breach.
But the tensions between Jerusalem and Washington won’t be easily soothed. Despite Obama’s strong military and diplomatic support for Israel, Netanyahu openly challenged him on Iran at the United Nations in September. Israel argues that even if it has to attack alone, Iran must be prevented from developing the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, which the Israeli leader projected would happen by spring. Obama, rightly reluctant to start another preemptive war, puts a redline at preventing Iran from actually building a weapon.
Whether the Israeli election results will change Netanyahu’s calculation isn’t clear yet. Some of his possible coalition partners have argued strongly against a solo Israeli attack on Iran.
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the breach is even more evident. The White House knows the current Mideast turmoil makes a peace accord unlikely in the near term, as do the weakness of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the positions of Hamas, which controls Gaza.
But Netanyahu’s promotion of Jewish settlement building on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem virtually rules out a two-state solution in the long term. It also isolates Israel internationally and puts the onus for stalled talks on Jerusalem.
A stunning report by the Israeli group Peace Now (available at peacenow.org) details the vast new settlement construction under Netanyahu in isolated areas of the West Bank — as opposed to the settlement blocs that Israel has said it wants to keep under a peace agreement. Netanyahu has moved to “legalize” many illegal outposts whose removal is called for by international accords signed by Israel.
Whether the new Israeli government will take on the settlement issue is doubtful. Netanyahu’s own Likud party has moved rightward. His coalition will probably include a new party that advocates annexing the West Bank. And he promised that no settlement would be removed if he were elected.
Much will depend on whether some of the partners Netanyahu woos for his coalition make settlements an issue. But even if they do, Bibi may not oblige. If not, the settlement issue will remain a thorn in U.S.-Israeli relations.
When the U.N. Security Council voted last fall to condemn Israel for settlements, the United States was one of only eight countries siding with Israel. Obama got no thanks: Soon afterward, Netanyahu advanced plans — opposed by several U.S. presidents — to build in an area of the West Bank that would cut the territory off from Arab East Jerusalem, the site Palestinians seek for their capital.
Yet consider this: “Israel (now) depends more on the United States than ever,” said Barnea. “Israel is more and more isolated in Europe, as relations gradually deteriorate towards a boycott which could endanger the economy of Israel.”