Ahead of this month’s Israeli elections, Stephen Oryszczuk considers the poll’s likely impact on future relations with allies and the Palestinians
“These elections will pave the way for the new Israeli government to carry on as before or to change course,” says Prof. Susser from Tel Aviv University, looking ahead to 17 March.
“It will shape the fate of Israel in the decade ahead.”
It’s a big answer to a big question: what is at stake?
Is it simply the political career of three-time premier Benjamin Netanyahu, or is there more to play for?
Israel is at a crossroads, especially in world affairs, but will this play a role in the minds of the voters and will their choice influence policy? That voter choice can crudely be divided between right-wing, centre-left and special interest.
The former includes Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu.
The crowded centre-left includes Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, Yair Lapid’s party Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu and the left-leaning Meretz. Elsewhere, Naftali Bennett’s religious-nationalist Jewish Home appeals to settlers, the Joint List attracts Arab voters and the ultra-Orthodox opt for parties like Shas.
What effect could this choice have on foreign affairs and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Let’s start with the latter. Many Israelis bemoan the lack of a Palestinian “partner for peace” but polls say most still want a two-state solution.
Yet successive Netanyahu governments have seemed intent on delaying Palestinian hopes for an independent state, and analysts say this would only continue. “The right wants to maintain the status quo with the Palestinians, controlling the conflict as opposed to solving it,” says Mikhael Manekin of Israeli think-tank Molad.
“The centre-left, in principle, would aim to achieve a two-state solution.”
They may, but by what means? The opposition Zionist Union – led by Isaac ‘Buji’ Herzog and former chief negotiator Tzipi Livni – may bulldoze their way to it.
Exhibit A is their would-be Defence Minister, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin. A respected former head of military intelligence who was one of eight pilots to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, he backs unilateral moves if peace is gridlocked. If the peace process remains on hold, the US-Israel relationship is in freefall – a point not lost on Israelis. “Public attention to foreign policy issues is higher in these elections than previously,” says Dr. Nimrod Goren of the Israeli Institute of Regional Foreign Policy.
“When Livni warned last time of international isolation, it seemed abstract. Now the public gets that there’s a problem, especially with the US.” That problem has been felt far and wide.
Referring to their quarrel over Iran, JLC policy chief Claudia Mendoza says: “March could shape not just the future of the Middle East but of the US-Israel relationship.”
Yet most agree that for a relationship which ought to stand above politics, Netanyahu’s bipartisan conduct has been inexplicable, risking more than just votes. “If Israel’s security is to be maintained,” says Board of Deputies’ vice-president Alex Brummer, “the strategic alliance with the US needs to be reinforced, not weakened.”
Hawks agree. “There is Netanyahu fatigue,” says Yediot Achronot commentator Yossi Shain. “The White House doesn’t like him. The French don’t like him. The Brits don’t love him, nor does Merkel. He has harmed relations with the US, with his speech in US Congress. It’s a factor, I just don’t know how much.”
It could be significant.
Israelis still consider relations with the US their number one foreign policy priority, and “the fiasco regarding [Netanyahu’s] US Congress speech is causing them harm,” says Goren.
“The average Israeli may not be very interested in the Palestinian issue, but they are likely to be worried about a prime minister who doesn’t deliver on maintaining good ties with Washington.”
Chatham House director Yossi Mekelberg thinks such diplomatic problems could be solved, at least in part, at the ballot box on 17 March. “Right now we have tension with the US over Iran and tension with Europe over settlements, which we might not have under a different government,” he says. “If we had a government that negotiated peace genuinely, then we might not have some of these trends and boycotts. So yes, it is important who will be prime minister and who will be in the coalition.”
All this cuts to the crunch issue of how Israel acts on the world stage. “To survive long-term, Israel must be a member of the family of nations because, as a small state, it has diverse dependencies – political, diplomatic and economic – that cannot be served in isolation and as some kind of international pariah,” says Susser.
“It will be none of these three things if it continues to occupy millions of Palestinians against their will, with all the disproportionate diversion of resources that entails.” Israel is “rapidly approaching a point when it has to make crucial decisions about the future relationship with the Palestinians and the continuation of the occupation,” says Susser. “We must decide soon on the creation of a two-state reality, whether in negotiation or by unilateral action. The election will decide whether Israel has a government inclined to do so.”
Allies have views as to who might be more so inclined. “British politicians want an Israeli government that makes positive efforts for peace,” said Lord (Monroe) Palmer, vice-president of Lib Dem Friends of Israel. “A coalition of [right-wing] Netanyahu, Lieberman and Bennett, with support for settlement expansion, does not help peace. A coalition of [centre-left] Herzog, Lapid, Livni, Kahlon and others may be what many UK leaders prefer.”
Most commentators agree that the next Israeli government has big decisions, especially in relation to the Palestinians, and those thoughts are echoed from the UK. “The consensus around a two-state solution needs to be strengthened,” says Brummer.
“Israel and the Palestinians already have shown they can work together on economic, agricultural and water projects that benefit both Jewish and Arab populations.”
The big worry, explains Britain’s former Middle East Minister Alistair Burt MP, is that Israel’s electoral system makes it hard for a stable government to emerge. “Such a government is necessary to take the crucial decisions that are needed not just for today, but for Israel’s future,” he says.
“The UK will be watching closely.” So, when all is said and done, what if we end up with another Netanyahu government? “I wouldn’t use the word ‘disaster,’ but it’s not far off,” says Mekelberg.
“He’s been in power a long time, with not much to show for it. The economy’s not great, relations with the US are strained and the world is isolating us over settlements. Another two years of that would cause severe harm to Israeli interests.”