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National Post View: Netanyahu’s challenge ahead

National Post View | March 18, 2015

By early Wednesday it was clear that Israeli voters had confounded the experts. Most observers had suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were in a fight for their political lives. Exit polls projected Likud was at best neck-and-neck with its main rival, the Zionist Union, formed just months ago from the merger of Israel’s Labour party and the liberal Hatunah party.

Yet reports of Mr. Netanyahu’s defeat proved exaggerated. In the dying days of the campaign, Mr. Netanyahu swung hard to the right. He abandoned his previous support for the peace process, declaring there would be no two-state solution with the Palestinians so long as he was prime minister. This was, in many ways, simply a statement of the obvious. Mr. Netanyahu had shown little interest during his recent term in resuming peace negotiations, and in any case does not have a reliable partner among the corrupt and bitterly divided Palestinian leadership.

But Mr. Netanyahu also raised fears that Israel’s Arab citizens — 20% of the population and growing — would use their demographic clout to become power brokers after the election, as if people exercising political clout through their ballots wasn’t exactly the point of having elections in the first place.

It was a distasteful display, especially considering Israel has long (rightly) boasted its Arab citizens were richer, freer and better treated than their counterparts anywhere else in the Middle East. The tactic worked, however: Likud won 30 seats in the Knesset — halfway to the 60 required to form a majority, and comfortably ahead of the Zionist Union’s 24 seats. In a statement released shortly after the results were known, Mr. Netanyahu pledged he would rapidly establish a coalition with like-minded parties, as is typical in Israeli politics (under the country’s proportional representation system, outright majorities by any single party after an election are unlikely

“Our country’s everyday reality doesn’t give us the luxury [of] delay,” the statement said, and there is certainly truth to this. Israeli politics are always turbulent, but so is the region in which its people live. Israel has been surrounded by enemies since it was first established, but rarely has it been so surrounded by outright chaos. Mr. Netanyahu was not wrong during the campaign, and in the months and years before it, to speak of the dangers faced by the Israeli people. Maintaining effective government and strong leadership matters more in Israel than anywhere else in the free world.

Mr. Netanyahu’s options for coalition partners, however, are less than ideal. The Zionist Union was quick to reject any notion of a national unity government with Likud, which would have only needed the backing of a half-dozen members to form a workable majority. It is believed Mr. Netanyahu will instead seek allies from Israel’s hard-right political flank, including nationalist and religious parties.

Netanyahu may find himself having to answer to elements of the Israeli politic further to the right than he is himself.

Assembling a majority with such partners won’t be difficult, nor would it be unrepresentative — Israel’s right wing, through its many parties, has the clear support of a majority of the country’s voters. Mr. Netanyahu, however, may find himself having to answer to elements of the Israeli politic further to the right than he is himself.

Few understand better than Mr. Netanyahu the very real security challenges Israel faces, particularly the existential threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose. But despite Mr. Netanyahu’s recent claims in Washington that Israel can defend itself on its own, Israel cannot survive indefinitely without international support. Mr. Netanyahu will have a delicate task weighing the demands of his likely coalition partners against the needs of his country. Israel needs a strong leader who has a clear understanding of the geopolitical nightmare that is the Middle East today, and Mr. Netanyahu certainly fits that bill. But it also needs a leader who does not deepen the country’s cultural, diplomatic and potentially economic isolation. Can Mr. Netanyahu be both those leaders? That is the challenge facing him in his fourth term.

National Post

 

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