By definitively re-electing Benjamin Netanyahi, Israelis refused to go left and refused to go right. This was what Netanyahu expected when he called for early elections – and having just won his fourth, he certainly counts as the expert.
The important question now is why Israelis are sticking with the status quo when external critics from the left and internal critics from the right were hoping for a meaningful course correction.
Start with the biggest headline, namely the failure of the center-left coalition led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni to eclipse support for Netanyahu’s center-right party and its far- right partners. To critics abroad, from U.S. Democrats who share President Barack Obama’s evident dislike for Netanyahu to Europeans of all political stripes who consider Netanyahu closed to peace, it was exciting to think that the center-left might stage a historic recovery and bring us back to the days of Ehud Barak or even Yitzhak Rabin.
But there are at least two major reasons the center-left failed to re-emerge. The most important is that Israeli- Palestinian relations, the only area in which the Herzog-Livni coalition would’ve differed meaningfully from Netanyahu, don’t depend only on Israel. They depend on the Palestinians, too.
Right now, the Palestinian side doesn’t have a credible partner with which Israel could make a lasting peace. Mahmoud Abbas might conceivably be willing to do a deal, but it appears he can’t deliver a unified Palestinian public behind him. Hamas, which controls Gaza, hasn’t truly reconciled with him. Equally important, Abbas, who turns 80 next week, has limited staying power – and it’s unclear who will follow him.
Historically, Israelis have been prepared to choose center-left governments and negotiate peace when the possibility seemed realistic. Otherwise, they tend to prefer the center-right. More than any other factor, this historical reality explains the defeat of the center-left.
An adjunct factor to the center-left’s weakness is that it isn’t led by a figure with strong national security credentials. Barak and Rabin were former generals, who could compromise and make peace without being perceived as weak. Herzog, an Israeli aristocrat, is the son of a president and the grandson of a chief rabbi. But he’s a career lawyer and politician, as is Livni.
It would be great if the center-left didn’t have to field another general to gain national security legitimacy. But realistically, a nervous, distrustful public in a society that respects the military probably still needs something more before placing the fate of the country in the hands of a potential peacemaker.
Turn now to the other important result of the election: Netanyahu substantially strengthened himself relative to the far-right components of his coalition, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Is Our Home. In all probability, this was the gain Netanyahu most wanted.
The excuse for the breakdown of the government was an intra-cabinet controversy over a proposed new basic law– Israel’s version of a constitutional amendment – that would’ve altered Israel’s traditional definition of itself as Jewish and democratic by strengthening the former and weakening the latter. Netanyahu didn’t want to embrace the most extreme form of the right’s redefinition of the national project.
The Israeli public has now given Netanyahu a mandate to keep the far-right to his right, and to maintain the basic ideological posture of the state in its current form. That means wild talk of annexing most of the West Bank will be quieted, at least for the immediately perceivable political future.
To Netanyahu’s critics within Israel and outside, this may seem like a matter of rhetoric rather than a matter of political reality. After all, Netanyahu has made it clear that he has no intention to stop settlements, and no present intention to make peace – which means that, in effect, Israel is moving in the direction of a permanent presence in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Without discounting the long-term effects of increased settlements, especially in the absence of a peace process worthy of the name, there’s still an important difference between Netanyahu’s position and that of Bennett and Lieberman.
In essence, the Israeli far-right is prepared to abandon the aspiration for Israel to be a liberal democratic state in the Western European mold. Faced with criticisms that Israel falls short of its liberal democratic ideals, Netanyahu’s instinct is to explain that Israel is trying to achieve equality, democracy and rights under the constraints of its rough Middle Eastern neighborhood and the Palestinian aspiration to full nationhood.
To critics, the answer is disingenuous. But Netanyahu believes it, and so anchors Israeli politics in the space of contradictory imperfection.
Bennett and Lieberman’s instinct is simply to accept and acknowledge that Israel isn’t going to be liberal or democratic when it comes to Palestinians, now or ever. If the far-right were to overtake the center-right in Israeli politics, as has sometimes seemed possible in recent years, Israel might no longer collectively aspire to reconcile its Jewish national character with liberal democracy. It might simply embrace particularism at the expense of universal values.
That way lies not just second-class status for Palestinians, but population transfer. The consequences of such a turn would be truly disastrous, for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard and the author of six books, most recently “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”