The consensus of most pundits in the aftermath of yesterday’s Israeli election is that the voters rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that polls showed him winning re-election in a landslide last summer, the gradual slide from that high point to a vote in which his current coalition got just half of the seats in the Knesset is a comedown. It reflects several mistakes that he made during this period and led to his Likud getting just 31 seats. That was the largest total won by any party, but far short of expectations. Thus, while Netanyahu is still the only possible person to fill the post of prime minister, he is faced with a tricky problem putting together a new coalition.
Netanyahu’s critics will make a meal out of this, and to some extent they are justified in doing so. His campaign was inept and fraught with misjudgments. But while the result does reflect a lack of affection for the prime minister, those attempting to argue that it reflects a vote of no confidence in his foreign policy are misinterpreting the vote. The big winner in yesterday’s vote was the centrist Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid. But Lapid’s positions on the peace process were virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu since while he favors peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he wants to retain the major settlement blocs and opposes the division of Jerusalem. Nor are his positions on domestic issues, including lowering taxes and a more equitable draft system that would lead to the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, incompatible with those of the prime minister. What follows now will be a difficult set of negotiations to create a new government. But there’s no doubt that when the dust settles, Netanyahu will still be on top and he will have a cabinet that may enable him to carry on the same policies that he implemented in the last four years. As defeats go, it isn’t too bad a result.
The list of Netanyahu’s campaign mistakes begins with his on-again, off-again alliance with the Kadima party last summer. A merger followed that with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu that would end up being a tactical mistake since it left many Russian-born voters searching for another secular party to back. Many chose Lapid, helping him to a stunning total of 19 seats. A swing to the right by Likud primary voters gave him a more extreme parliamentary list to run with and caused some more bleeding to the center. Yet ironically, many on the right abandoned Netanyahu to embrace Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party that also made big gains.
Most of all, Netanyahu’s problem was due to the fact that voters knew they didn’t have to vote for the Likud in order to be assured that he would remain prime minister. The lack of any credible alternative to him meant that many of those who would have pulled the lever for him personally felt that what they were voting for in Israel’s single party vote system was a choice of which party would be his major coalition partner. Though many in the foreign press are claiming that Lapid’s showing is a slap at Netanyahu or even a rejection of his policies, it is more likely that most were just saying that they wanted a Likud-Yesh Atid government, not a different prime minister.
The twists and turns of the coalition negotiations can’t be predicted with any accuracy, but the most likely scenario remains one in which Netanyahu forms a government with Lapid and some other smaller parties with the ultra-Orthodox parties on the sidelines. That will allow a long sought-after change in the draft laws that will be immensely popular. And it will also mean no real change in the country’s position on talks with the Palestinians. Since the Palestinian Authority isn’t likely to return to peace talks no matter who is running Israel, anyone who asserts that the election changes anything on this score is simply wrong.
The bottom line for Netanyahu is that even though the election didn’t go as well for him as he would have liked, the repercussions from the vote don’t really impact his ability to stay in office or continue the policies that are most important to him. No matter which of the possible combinations of parties that will make up the new government wind up in the cabinet, Netanyahu will not be impeded from prioritizing the Iranian nuclear threat or in sticking to his position on the peace process. Nor should he, since nothing in the vote indicates that these policies aren’t popular. That’s something that many of Netanyahu’s critics, including President Obama, should keep in mind as they seek to pressure him to change them.
Though he is battered, that still leaves Netanyahu a winner as he contemplates his third term as prime minister.