By Naomi Coffman ’16
Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi as he is both affectionately and derogatively called, has survived another ballot box battle. In a surprisingly easy victory, Netanyahu secured more than 20% of the general vote and obtained 30 Parliamentary seats for his conservative Likud party. The race, which will win Netanyahu his fourth term in office, belied a popular Western assumption that the conservative, hawkish, internationally minded Prime Minister could not possibly mobilize an increasingly liberal, war-weary, and domestically driven public. Now, Netanyahu’s foreign and domestic critics face a far more secure opponent, one who has regained control over his own party and mastered the art of Israeli politics.
Within the Israeli governmental system, citizens vote for parties, not people. These parties are then awarded a certain number of seats in the country’s Parliament, the Knesset, in proportion to their popularity in the general election. With 30 seats, Netanyahu’s Likud Party controls only 25% of the Knesset’s seats, the rest of which are divided among ten other political factions. In fact, no single party in Israel’s history has ever secured more than half of the Knesset seats, a reality which has fostered a highly fragmented Parliamentary system in which leading parties must cobble together a coalition capable of governing the country. As a conservative, internationally-minded leader, Netanyahu will likely create a coalition drawn from Likud, the conservative Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home parties, the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, and the centrist Kulanu Party. Although this would alienate the nation’s more liberal Labor and Zionist Union parties, such a coalition would guarantee Netanyahu 67 Knesset seats and force President Reuven Rivlin to appoint him Prime Minister.
So, what does Bibi’s reelection mean for Israel, the United States, Palestine, and the rest of the world? Despite his majority, Netenyahu must overcome several hurdles in the coming weeks before this coalition becomes a reality. Although conflicts with Iran, Palestine, and Lebanon grab headlines, most Israelis are far more concerned with the Israeli economy. Citizens expect Netanyahu to create a viable 2015 budget, address the current affordable housing crisis (which sparked massive demonstrations in 2011), and attempt to stimulate an economy in which annual GDP-per-capita growth has slowed to 0.8%. Netanyahu’s coalition must also encourage more competition in the country’s centralized economy, especially in the monopolized banking, mobile phone, and housing industries. In order to satisfy these popular demands for economic reform and build a functional government, Netanyahu must incorporate the Kulanu Party into his coalition and convince Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon to serve as his Finance Minister.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu and Kahlon have openly despised each other ever since Kahlon’s defection from Likud. Moshe has openly expressed both his preference for Isaac Herzog, head of the center-left Zionist Union Party and Netanyahu’s primary opponent in the 2015 elections, and his disagreement with Netanyahu’s neo-liberal economic policies. Consequently, Kahlon has demanded a series of concessions before accepting the Ministerial position and already failed to show up to the first round of negotiations. Netanyahu has also squabbled with the likely future Foreign Minister, Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party won only six seats in the election, and consistently ignored one of his closest allies, Naftali Bennett, head of the HaBayit HaYehudi party. Netanyahu’s electoral victory has trapped him in a domestic quagmire of competing interests, which he must tackle before addressing Israel’s mounting international problems.
Eventually, Netanyahu’s new government will face three primary international hurdles: Palestine, souring relations with the United States, and the growing number of regional conflicts. The Palestinian question and the possibility of a two-state solution may seem like old—very old—news, but both continue to challenge and embarrass Israel. Netanyahu steadfastly refuses to negotiate with Hamas, Gaza’s governing body, producing an extended stalemate which has exploded in three separate, bloody rounds of violence since 2005. Meanwhile, the historically more cooperative Palestinian Authority has started to seek (and more importantly to receive) greater recognition and sympathy in both the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. To protect itself and to redeem its international image, Israel must find some sort of solution to the Palestinian question and abandon Netanyahu’s ‘wait and we can outlast them’ policy.
Sadly, Netanyahu’s refusal to seek a two-state solution have alienated President Barak Obama and many Americans. According to Jon Alterman, CSIS Brzezinksi Chair in Geostrategy and Middle East Program Director, “the election and surrounding polling suggest that the majority political sentiment in Israel is out of sync with the majority political sentiment in the United States. If politics continue to diverge, that could pose challenges to both countries in the future.” Netanyahu’s Congressional speech, allegations of Israeli spying on American diplomatic meetings, and thwarted Palestine peace efforts have all contributed to escalating tensions between the two nations, whose leaders fundamentally disagree on so many policy issues.
Finally, Israel must develop a long-term strategy which accounts for the “security hotspots” encircling the tiny, isolated nation. In addition to its feud with Iran and unrest in the Egyptian Sinai, Israel currently faces a much larger threat from the refugee populations in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan—spillover from the ongoing Iraqi and Syrian conflicts. Safeguarding the Israeli populace will require soft power and an improved regional status which, to come full circle, necessitates a better, more constructive relationship with Palestine. While Israel’s neighbors continue to perceive Netanyahu’s government as an oppressive regime which marginalizes the Palestinian people, Israel will remain diplomatically isolated and vulnerable to arms smuggling and terrorist attacks. If Netanyahu wishes to build the sorts of mutually beneficial relationships which will protect his country for decades to come, he must reengage with Palestine and actively pursue a two-state solution to the current crisis.
Although changing his foreign policy will alienate a large proportion of his constituency, failing to do so may carry a far higher cost for Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israel currently holds a precarious position, trapped in the epicenter of a troubled region and harassed by both internal and external forces. It remains to be seen whether Bibi will follow the same well-known paths, or lead his country into a far less certain, if ultimately redemptive, future.
Image Source: The New York Times