Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli elections

Can Herzog and Livni Topple Netanyahu?

The agreement between the Israeli Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form a joint list for the Knesset has, at least for the moment, seemed to change the dynamic of the election campaign. The first poll taken immediately after the merger shows Labor-Hatnua winning one more seat than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Theoretically that would place Herzog in position to be tapped to lead the next government provided he could put together a coalition of parties. But while this survey has to set the hearts of the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s many critics racing, it is probably a mistake for them to jump to the conclusion that the PM’s days are truly numbered. While the possibility of a genuine alternative to the present government is generating some good numbers for Herzog, the math of Israeli coalition politics and the dynamic of an election in which the notion of two major parties may be revived may cut short his dreams of victory.

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The agreement between the Israeli Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form a joint list for the Knesset has, at least for the moment, seemed to change the dynamic of the election campaign. The first poll taken immediately after the merger shows Labor-Hatnua winning one more seat than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Theoretically that would place Herzog in position to be tapped to lead the next government provided he could put together a coalition of parties. But while this survey has to set the hearts of the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s many critics racing, it is probably a mistake for them to jump to the conclusion that the PM’s days are truly numbered. While the possibility of a genuine alternative to the present government is generating some good numbers for Herzog, the math of Israeli coalition politics and the dynamic of an election in which the notion of two major parties may be revived may cut short his dreams of victory.

Prior to the announcement of early elections, Labor seemed to be continuing on its historical arc from once dominant party of government to irrelevant minor party. The first polls indicated Labor would be losing seats. As for Livni’s party, every poll showed it would be wiped out leaving the former foreign minister out of the Knesset. Ever the pragmatic opportunist, Livni drew the correct conclusion from the data and began marketing herself to the other larger parties for a merger. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid wanted her badly but Livni rightly saw that her arrival wouldn’t do much to halt its slide with polls showing it losing close to half of its seats. Nor did Livni feel comfortable sharing a platform with Lapid. Those two big egos were not going to work well together.

Labor was a much better fit in that the mild-mannered Herzog seems more like a team player and that choice would enable Livni to approach the elections by campaigning on her hopes to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians that Netanyahu wouldn’t make. Adding Livni and her followers to the Labor list also provides a jolt of energy to a party led by a man who is well regarded but seems to have the charisma of a soggy potato.

Though Lapid aspires to be the leader of a center bloc that could beat the Likud, Labor-Hatnua also gives the appearance of a real alternative to Netanyahu to Israelis who are understandably tired of the prime minister after six years of him at the top. That factor along with resentment at Netanyahu for pushing for an election that most Israelis think is unnecessary could be the reason for the fact that Herzog and Livni are doing far better as a couple than they would have done separately.

But before Herzog starts trying to piece together a coalition, there are some factors that may ultimately undo his momentary advantage.

The first is the very one that seems to have invigorated Labor. So long as there was no real alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister, it was possible for voters who generally support the parties of the center right or the right to vote for alternatives to Likud. Since it is almost certain that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home will never join a coalition led by the left, voters were free to vote for them rather than Netanyahu’s Likud. It was that factor that led to Likud finishing behind Livni’s Kadima by one seat in the 2009 elections even though the parties of the right combined for more than those of the left leading to Netanyahu becoming prime minister. The same thing diminished Netanyahu’s results in 2013.

But if Israelis are returning to the old paradigm in which Likud and Labor dominate the Knesset, then we should expect the former to start gaining strength at the expense of their potential partners too.

Even more to the point, if the results will hinge on the public’s view of the peace process rather than domestic issues, as was the case the last time Israel voted, that, too, works in Netanyahu’s favor.

Though his foreign critics blame Netanyahu for the ongoing standoff with the Palestinians, most Israelis, including many who are less than thrilled with the prickly prime minister, know that it is the Palestinians who continue to thwart peace, not their own government. An election fought on the idea of more concessions to the Palestinians is not one that will favor those advocating anything that smacks of a duplicating the Gaza experiment in the West Bank. That is especially true after that summer war with Hamas that left most Israelis scrambling for bomb shelters as rockets fired from the terrorist state on their doorsteps rained down on them. Nor is it credible for Livni to offer herself as a real alternative to Netanyahu’s policies since it was she who was negotiating with the Palestinians during the last year.

Equally dubious is the notion that Israelis will reject Netanyahu because they are worried about Israel becoming more isolated under his leadership. Israelis are aware of the fact that it is anti-Semitism, rather than genuine concern for the Palestinians, that motivate European attacks on their government. Nor are they likely to vote for Herzog and Livni because Barack Obama, a president that they rightly believe to be the most hostile American leader to their country in more than a generation, wants them to oust Netanyahu.

With the new Kulanu party led by former Likud Cabinet member Moshe Kahlon entering the contest and other parties rising (Bennett’s Jewish Home) as others fall (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Lapid’s Yesh Atid), it’s too early to predict the outcome with any certainty. There is the possibility that Bennett will join with Likud and create a far larger merged entity than Likud-Hatnua. Meanwhile, the theme of “anybody but Bibi” as Netanyahu vies for a fourth term that could lead to him being the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history may be one that will be hard for Likud to overcome. But if the country is moving back to two big parties that will fight it out over the peace process, it’s hard to call Netanyahu anything but still the favorite to prevail in March.

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Shuffling the Deck Won’t Topple Netanyahu

The announcement this week of early elections for Israel may have been, at least in part, precipitated by polls showing that the results of a new vote would great strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But after six years of Netanyahu at the top of the heap, not unsurprisingly, there is a lot of “anybody but Bibi” talk ricocheting around the Internet that posits that the Israeli public is ready for a change in leaders even if there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative to him or a willingness to reject his policies on the peace process. Equally unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of volunteers to be the PM’s replacement and opposition figures as well as coalition rivals are negotiating furiously with each other for new alignments that might somehow magically unseat Netanyahu. But while a lot can happen in the three months until the election, neither the boredom with Bibi or any combination of new elections slates seems likely to produce a formula in which he is not sworn in for a fourth term sometime next Spring.

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The announcement this week of early elections for Israel may have been, at least in part, precipitated by polls showing that the results of a new vote would great strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But after six years of Netanyahu at the top of the heap, not unsurprisingly, there is a lot of “anybody but Bibi” talk ricocheting around the Internet that posits that the Israeli public is ready for a change in leaders even if there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative to him or a willingness to reject his policies on the peace process. Equally unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of volunteers to be the PM’s replacement and opposition figures as well as coalition rivals are negotiating furiously with each other for new alignments that might somehow magically unseat Netanyahu. But while a lot can happen in the three months until the election, neither the boredom with Bibi or any combination of new elections slates seems likely to produce a formula in which he is not sworn in for a fourth term sometime next Spring.

Most of Netanyahu’s foreign critics are blowing smoke when they claim that the Israeli people are about to reject him because they are dissatisfied with his inability to make peace with the Palestinians. After 20 years of failed attempts to trade land for peace and the growing volume of terror attacks fueled by incitement by the country’s so-called partner, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, only a minority of Israelis have the least faith in the prospects of peace. But as is the case in any democracy, a feeling of exhaustion with Netanyahu after three terms as PM and a desire for a change is to be expected.

Indeed, the less than satisfactory results of last summer’s war with Hamas, a sluggish economy and justified dismay at the way the prime minister turned a pointless dispute with his fractious coalition allies into a move to entirely unnecessary elections ought to form a rationale for his ouster. But as even his most bitter enemies on the left concede, there is no one on either side of the left-right divide who strikes anyone as a likely replacement.

The Knesset’s vote to dissolve was quickly followed by intense negotiations on the part of the various parties to set up informal or formal alliances. On the one hand Netanyahu seems to have struck a bargain with his chief rival on the right, Naphtali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party in which the two would run separately but work together after the vote to set up a government. Other members of the recent government, including Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beytenu and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid may also work together in conjunction with the real wild card of the vote: Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud Cabinet member who is starting his own populist party. At the same time, Tzipi Livni of Hatnua is shopping for a new electoral home (her fourth in the last decade after stints in Likud, Kadima and her current roost) in either Labor or Yesh Atid since the chances of her splinter group getting back into the Knesset on its own steam are not great.

This is all fascinating stuff for Zionist political junkies but the bottom line here remains the fact that no matter how you reshuffle the political deck in Israel, you still come up with the same amount of cards on both the left, the right and the center. The stock and likely haul of Knesset seats for Lapid, Lieberman and Livni are all declining. Lapid may lose as many as half his seats. The Likud will likely gain seats from its current total (in the last election it split seats with Lieberman’s party and wound up with a smaller total than it could have gotten on its own) while Bennett’s party looks to gain even more. Kahlon’s new entity will likely pick off Lapid and Livni’s losses and may eat into Likud’s gains as Kahlon tries to position himself as being “a little right of center.” Anything can happen in 90 days of campaigning but the net result of all the maneuvering and politicking is probably going to be an overall gain for the right-wing parties and stasis among the centrists.

Even more important, and deeply discouraging for Netanyahu’s foreign detractors is that the parties of the Israeli left show no signs of being able to profit from the ennui and dissatisfaction with the prime minister. Labor head Yitzhak Herzog is well liked but, at least to date, considered something of a political cipher. The once dominant Labor Party appears headed at the moment to a loss of seats rather than gaining. Meretz, its ally to the left is not doing well either.

That, along with the expected gains for the right, stems from the fact that security issues are more important this time than in the last vote when domestic concerns about the economy made Lapid the star of the election. All of which brings us back to where we started in discussing the unrealistic hopes of those who believe Israel needs to be saved from itself. The overwhelming majority of Israeli voters do not want a government that will bow to pressure from an American president that they have good reason not to trust or a European community they regard as being influenced by a rising tide of global anti-Semitism.

The campaign will be difficult for Netanyahu and he won’t have an easy time negotiating a new coalition agreement even if the current trends hold and the parties of the right have a governing majority even before adding religious or centrist parties to the mix. But the reshuffle of the deck that we are currently witnessing doesn’t seem to be likely to prevent a fourth term for the prime minister. President Obama and his J Street friends may be praying for an “anybody but Bibi” result next March. But the old political axiom that says you can’t beat somebody with nobody would appear to trump those hopes.

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Obama’s Threats Won’t Hurt Netanyahu

Few savvy observers took Secretary of State John Kerry at his word earlier this week when he piously proclaimed that the United States had no thought of attempting to intervene in Israel’s elections. The animus bordering on hatred felt by President Obama’s inner circle toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly a secret. But it didn’t take long for a leak to an Israeli newspaper that is among the PM’s most rabid foes to dispel any doubts about the administration’s hopes that it could somehow derail his bid for a fourth term. The report from Barak Ravid, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent that the White House held a meeting whose purpose was to plan possible future sanctions against Israel to punish it for continuing to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocs, is a shot fired over Netanyahu’s bow. But the real question here is not so much Obama’s desire to see the prime minister defeated, as it is why anyone in the administration thinks this gambit will succeed now after the same tactics have failed repeatedly before.

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Few savvy observers took Secretary of State John Kerry at his word earlier this week when he piously proclaimed that the United States had no thought of attempting to intervene in Israel’s elections. The animus bordering on hatred felt by President Obama’s inner circle toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly a secret. But it didn’t take long for a leak to an Israeli newspaper that is among the PM’s most rabid foes to dispel any doubts about the administration’s hopes that it could somehow derail his bid for a fourth term. The report from Barak Ravid, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent that the White House held a meeting whose purpose was to plan possible future sanctions against Israel to punish it for continuing to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocs, is a shot fired over Netanyahu’s bow. But the real question here is not so much Obama’s desire to see the prime minister defeated, as it is why anyone in the administration thinks this gambit will succeed now after the same tactics have failed repeatedly before.

The Haaretz report makes it clear that the administration is looking ahead to another two years of escalating confrontation with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly demonstrated its lack of interest in negotiating, let alone signing a peace agreement that would end the conflict. Nor do the construction of homes for Jews in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem or even in the settlement blocs that everyone (including President Obama) knows would remain inside Israel if peace were ever achieved constitute any sort of obstacle to a two-state solution. But the administration still clings to the illusion that the problem is Netanyahu and settlements rather than a Palestinian political culture that makes peace impossible and PA head Mahmoud Abbas’s incitement to violence. That means it is entirely possible that, as Ravid breathlessly predicts, the administration will no longer make do with bitter denunciations of Israeli actions in the future but will, instead adopt measures intended to punish the Jewish state. That might take the form of refraining from vetoing anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations Security Council or other actions intended to downgrade or undermine the alliance between the two countries.

But the notion that picking yet another fight with Netanyahu will hurt his chances of reelection tells us more about the administration’s continued inability to understand Israel than anything else. After all, President Obama has repeatedly tried to do this throughout his first six years in office. But every time the U.S. attempted to use Jewish building in Jerusalem to attack Netanyahu, the only result was that the prime minister’s political standing at home increased. Though the PM is under attack right now from both foes on the left and a crowded field of rivals on the right, there seems little reason to believe that his policies on Jerusalem or even on negotiations with the Palestinians has rendered him vulnerable. All the polls agree that Israeli voters appear poised to elect a Knesset that is even further skewed to the right than the existing government that was lambasted by American critics for being not interested in concessions to the Palestinians.

As even Ravid notes in the conclusion to his piece, Netanyahu always gains when he can portray himself as standing up to foreign pressure on security issues. The reason for that is that, unlike the Obama administration and Israel’s liberal critics abroad, the Israeli voting public has been paying attention to what the Palestinians have said and done during the last 20 years of peace processing. Israel has tried to trade land for peace and gotten more terror and no peace. At the present moment it is inconceivable that any Israeli government of any stripe would withdraw from the West Bank in order to make way for what could be an even larger and more dangerous version of the Hamas terror state that currently exists in Gaza.

It is true that the decimated Israeli left and their liberal American supporters such as the J Street lobby believe that the Jewish state must be saved from itself by heavy-handed U.S. intervention. Indeed, it is only by international pressure designed to thwart the verdict of Israeli democracy that their misguided agenda might be implemented. But it boggles the mind as to how anyone, either in Israel or the U.S., would think that the Israeli voting public would regard efforts to thwart their judgment in this manner as a good reason to vote against Netanyahu. Indeed, the commitment of the U.S. to a policy of heavy-handed pressure is the best argument for Netanyahu continuing in office since he is the country’s only major political figure with the experience and the tenacity to stand up to such treatment from the country’s sole superpower ally.

The three months between now and the election constitute a political eternity and Netanyahu cannot take his victory for granted even if the polls indicate he is the only possible choice for prime minister. But if Obama and his friends at Haaretz imagine such leaks will lead to Netanyahu’s downfall, it’s clear they have learned nothing from the past six years of such efforts.

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Why the U.S. Can’t Influence Israel’s Vote

The reaction from Washington to Israel’s decision to move to new elections in March was fairly circumspect. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the U.S. had no intention of trying to influence an “internal matter” and reaffirmed support for its ally, though he also said he hoped the next government would be one that could negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. But the subtext was obvious. As former peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote today in Foreign Policy, “thoughts of a new prime minister are now dancing in the heads” of President Obama and Kerry. The early vote gives the administration’s ceaseless quest to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from office one last chance. Yet with Netanyahu on track to emerge even stronger from the election that he is today, it might be time for Obama and Kerry to re-examine their argument with Jerusalem. The fact that they seem incapable of doing so speaks volumes about how out of touch Washington is from the realities of the Middle East.

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The reaction from Washington to Israel’s decision to move to new elections in March was fairly circumspect. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the U.S. had no intention of trying to influence an “internal matter” and reaffirmed support for its ally, though he also said he hoped the next government would be one that could negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. But the subtext was obvious. As former peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote today in Foreign Policy, “thoughts of a new prime minister are now dancing in the heads” of President Obama and Kerry. The early vote gives the administration’s ceaseless quest to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from office one last chance. Yet with Netanyahu on track to emerge even stronger from the election that he is today, it might be time for Obama and Kerry to re-examine their argument with Jerusalem. The fact that they seem incapable of doing so speaks volumes about how out of touch Washington is from the realities of the Middle East.

From the moment that Netanyahu took office only weeks after Obama’s inauguration, the administration has been seeking the Israeli’s downfall. In his first months, Obama seemed to harbor hopes that Tzipi Livni might supplant him. But that idea flopped as Netanyahu outmaneuvered the former Kadima Party leader and gained strength every time Obama picked fights with the Israeli government on issues like Jerusalem where the prime minister represented the Israeli consensus. After a pause for a Jewish charm offensive designed to enhance Obama’s reelection prospects, the feud was back in force in the last year as he and Kerry chose to wrongly blame Netanyahu for the failure off their futile attempt to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

As Miller writes, American governments have intervened in Israeli politics before in 1992 and 1996 when they openly supported Labor Party efforts to defeat the Likud. But Miller cautions against trying again in no small measure because the only possible alternative to Netanyahu might be the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett, who is very much to the right of the prime minister. While I think Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about Bennett supplanting him for the moment, his point is well taken. As I wrote on both Monday and Tuesday of this week about the move to new elections, the balance of Israeli politics has dramatically shifted to the right and the next Knesset is likely to be one in which left-wing parties favored by the administration will be weaker.

This is a source of great frustration for the president who lamented in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly about Israelis no longer being willing to do the hard work to make peace. But in saying that, he didn’t examine fully why it was that Israelis felt that way. Israelis want peace more than ever especially in the aftermath of another conflict with Hamas that saw much of the country’s population spending the summer dashing to and from bomb shelters as thousands of rockets rained down on their heads.

But what they have noticed and what the administration and liberal American critics of Netanyahu are determined to ignore is the fact that the Palestinians have consistently rejected peace offers from Israel. Even their so-called moderate leader is unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and incites hatred and violence against Israel. With no peace partner in sight, Israelis rightly understand that the best they can hope for is an attempt to manage the conflict, not to solve it.

Unlike his predecessors and Kerry, Netanyahu isn’t driven to create a legacy by negotiating a peace accord. He knows that making more concessions to the Palestinians will lead, as did all the attempts by his predecessors to make peace, to more violence and suffering, not peace. Unlike the administration, Netanyahu grasps the fact that peace won’t be possible until the Palestinians undergo a sea change in their political culture that will enable them to give up their dreams of Israel’s destruction. That is why his party and its right-wing allies/rivals are likely to emerge victorious in March. Indeed, the latest polls show that the right led by Netanyahu will gain enough votes for a Knesset majority even without seeking a coalition with centrist or religious parties.

Yet for the U.S. the disillusionment of the Israeli electorate with the discredited peace process remains inexplicable or a function of what liberals claim is a drift toward extremism in the Jewish state. But instead of attempting to force Israel to make more dangerous concessions to a peace partner that doesn’t want peace, Washington should be signaling the Palestinians that if they truly do want independence, they are going to have lose their delusions about Israel’s impermanence. They must stop lauding PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as hero for peace even though he has become a primary obstacle to its achievement.

If the U.S. does stay out of the Israeli campaign it will not be because Obama and Kerry respect Israeli democracy—they do not—or oppose interventions of this sort. It will because the administration understands that Israelis hold their premise about the conflict to be utter bunk. But instead of resenting this, as both Obama and Kerry obviously do, they should be wondering what it is that the people of Israel know about the situation that they can’t grasp.

But if there is anything we’ve learned in the past six years about this president and his administration, it is that it is not overly fond of admitting mistakes or rethinking cherished, if failed, ideologies about the world. While Israelis rightly care about their essential alliance with the United States and don’t personally love Netanyahu, they know better than to trust Obama’s judgment rather than their own lying eyes.

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No “Legacy” Is Asset for Netanyahu

By firing two of his coalition partners from his Cabinet today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set in motion a chain of events that will likely result in new elections next March. Since polls show that both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni would be badly weakened by a new vote and Netanyahu strengthened, the move seems likely to result in a more stable coalition. But though even his critics must give him credit for outsmarting Lapid and Livni, the end of this government is likely to engender a new round of Netanyahu-bashing in both the Israeli and the foreign press. The prime minister is good at politics, they will argue, but the decision to press forward with what most Israelis rightly consider unnecessary elections shows that he has accomplished nothing but political survival and lacks a legacy, such as a peace treaty with the Palestinians, to justify his long stay at the top. But while the critics will be right when they say Israel didn’t need another election, they’re wrong about Netanyahu’s legacy. As he heads toward his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu is showing that what his country needs is a competent leader not someone in search of a dubious place in history.

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By firing two of his coalition partners from his Cabinet today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set in motion a chain of events that will likely result in new elections next March. Since polls show that both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni would be badly weakened by a new vote and Netanyahu strengthened, the move seems likely to result in a more stable coalition. But though even his critics must give him credit for outsmarting Lapid and Livni, the end of this government is likely to engender a new round of Netanyahu-bashing in both the Israeli and the foreign press. The prime minister is good at politics, they will argue, but the decision to press forward with what most Israelis rightly consider unnecessary elections shows that he has accomplished nothing but political survival and lacks a legacy, such as a peace treaty with the Palestinians, to justify his long stay at the top. But while the critics will be right when they say Israel didn’t need another election, they’re wrong about Netanyahu’s legacy. As he heads toward his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu is showing that what his country needs is a competent leader not someone in search of a dubious place in history.

As the Times of Israel reported, in speaking to his nation today, Netanyahu justified his decision to oust Lapid and Livni from office by saying:

“I believe that you, the citizens of Israel, deserve a new, better, more stable government, a broad-based government that can govern,” he said.

And in order to give Israelis that “unified and strong” government, Netanyahu said, “one needs a strong ruling party.”

That means more votes for Likud in order to assure the prime minister of a stronger base within the next coalition. With the parties of the left still marginalized by the aftermath of the Oslo disasters, Netanyahu is effectively competing only against his rivals/allies on, as he put it, on the “right” and the “center right.” Those parties will, if the polls are correct, have between them nearly a majority of the Knesset even before they seek coalition partners from either the religious parties or what remains of the centrists that were just ousted by Netanyahu.

As even those least enamored of Netanyahu must concede he has no credible rivals for the post of prime minister, either among his partners or the opposition. But what Netanyahu’s domestic and foreign critics don’t understand about his dominance of Israeli politics is that it is precisely his eschewing of a vainglorious try for a historic legacy that has earned him the confidence of his people.

This is in marked contrast to every other prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir left office in 1992. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert all took stabs at unraveling the Gordian knot of Middle East peace with peace initiatives. But every one of these efforts, whether it was the Oslo Accords of Rabin and Peres, Barak’s Camp David offer of 2000, Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal, or the third offer of statehood to the Palestinians put forward at Annapolis, Maryland by Olmert, all failed spectacularly. Even worse, each of these efforts weakened Israel’s position for future negotiations while leading to more bloodshed and violence, rather than less.

President Obama and his foreign-policy team consider Netanyahu a cowardly failure (or a “chickensh*t” as he was famously labeled by anonymous senior administration officials) because he won’t match the follies of his predecessors and risk the country’s security with a new territorial withdrawal that could result in the creation of another terror state on Israel’s doorstep. But the people of Israel understand that Netanyahu’s willingness to say no to Obama is all that stands between them and another fiasco like Sharon’s Gaza gambit.

Netanyahu may never do anything that will earn him the applause of his liberal American critics that would be labeled a “legacy” even if it did nothing to achieve a lasting peace. That long-sought goal must await not another bold Israeli but a sea change in Palestinian political culture that will allow their leaders to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But what Israeli voters value is his ability to stand up to his country’s friends as well as its foes and to avoid more such bold disasters. If he has a legacy it will have to rest on the fact that he presided over a period of unprecedented economic strength and an avoidance of the kind of mistakes that men who hunger for the applause of an amorphous posterity can’t seem to resist. What Netanyahu’s predecessors proved is that the last thing a nation under siege needs is a leader more concerned with legacy than the safety of its citizens. As Israelis prepare to elect him prime minister for a fourth time, his lack of such foolish ambitions is an obvious qualification, not a drawback.

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Can Israel’s Critics Listen to Its People?

With relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition ally Yair Lapid at a nadir, it appears that the current Israeli government will soon be dissolved and the Jewish state will be heading back to the polls only two years after electing the current Knesset. Many Israelis are understandably annoyed at what they rightly perceive as a parliamentary crisis that is more about perceptions than substance. Nor is the prospect of Netanyahu being forced to face his people again riling most of his foreign critics. But rather than merely yawning over the prospect of another vote or buying into the distortions being published about the issue that helped sink the coalition, those inclined to take a dim view of Netanyahu should take a good look at the polls and draw some conclusions about the facts of Israeli political life even if they don’t jibe with liberal conventional wisdom about the country.

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With relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition ally Yair Lapid at a nadir, it appears that the current Israeli government will soon be dissolved and the Jewish state will be heading back to the polls only two years after electing the current Knesset. Many Israelis are understandably annoyed at what they rightly perceive as a parliamentary crisis that is more about perceptions than substance. Nor is the prospect of Netanyahu being forced to face his people again riling most of his foreign critics. But rather than merely yawning over the prospect of another vote or buying into the distortions being published about the issue that helped sink the coalition, those inclined to take a dim view of Netanyahu should take a good look at the polls and draw some conclusions about the facts of Israeli political life even if they don’t jibe with liberal conventional wisdom about the country.

Netanyahu’s apparent decision to force Lapid to accept a humiliating defeat in the Cabinet or accept new elections is, among other things, another illustration of the former journalist not being quite ready for prime time when he parachuted into Israeli politics. Though the charismatic leader of the Yesh Atid Party was the big winner in the last vote, his decision to join the government and become finance minister was a classic rookie error. Lapid’s reputation as a fresh new voice hasn’t survived the ordeal of government responsibilities. Netanyahu has run circles around him in parliamentary maneuvering and Lapid’s pointless opposition to a largely symbolic compromise bill proclaiming Israel to be a Jewish state has put him at a disadvantage both within the Cabinet and with the Israeli electorate. Polls show Yesh Atid likely to lose almost half its strength in a new election and no one, even his most bitter opponents, has the slightest doubt that Netanyahu will still be prime minister when the next Knesset is eventually sworn in.

But the most salient point to be gleaned from this bickering has nothing to do with the substance of that bill or even the way Lapid’s impending fall from grace demonstrates the apparently ironclad rule of Israeli politics that dictates that new centrist parties are doomed to decline after doing well the first time out. Instead, the most important lesson here is that the next election will likely illustrate the same truth about Israeli politics that the last two votes confirmed: the dominance of Israel’s right-wing parties.

If the polls are vindicated by the results, all a new election would achieve would be to reshuffle the deck in the Knesset to make the next government a bit more right wing. Yesh Atid’s mandates may go to a new center-right party led by former Likud cabinet minister Moshe Kahlon that would become a new focus of concern about the economy and social justice while not likely to disagree much with Netanyahu on the peace process or the Palestinians. Tzipi Livni, the former main challenger to Netanyahu but lately his sometime ally will also find herself diminished and will almost certainly have to join with some other party to stay relevant. Meanwhile one of Netanyahu’s main antagonists on the right, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party will likely gain seats and, in conjunction with Avigdor Lieberman and the Likud (which will also gain by running on its won without Lieberman) form a huge right-wing block around which other parties will have to join.

What’s missing from this discussion is the complete absence of a credible alternative to Netanyahu who might represent the views of liberal critics of the prime minister who think Israel needs to be saved from itself. That’s not just because no one thinks Yaakov Herzog, the leader of the Labor Party, is ready to be prime minister, but rather to the fact that the combined strength of the Israeli left—even if anti-Zionist Arab parties are added to their number—makes them non-competitive.

Despite the never-ending critiques of J Street or the Obama administration, the overwhelming majority of Israelis continue to reject the parties that espouse such views.

Like the last election, the next one in Israel will likely be fought on domestic issues rather than the traditional arguments about war and peace despite the last summer’s war in Gaza, stalled talks with the Palestinians, or the Iranian nuclear threat. Though Americans, including many Jews, find it hard to believe, there is actually a strong consensus in Israel that peace talks with the Palestinians are pointless and that territorial withdrawals in the West Bank would be suicidal.

That’s why, no matter how all the small and medium sized parties sort themselves out in a vote, Netanyahu will be reelected with ease. Those Americans who think that Netanyahu is leading Israel in the wrong direction are entitled to their opinion. But they should ponder whether the people of Israel—the ones whose lives are at risk in this conflict—know more about what is good for their country than J Street.

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Israel’s Critics and the Next Election

The drumbeat of incitement against Israel in Europe reached a fever pitch this past summer as the war in Gaza raged. But though the anti-Semitic tinged demonstrations in support of a “free Gaza” — albeit one that was ruled by Islamist terrorists raining down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities — have ceased, the incitement continues as does the diplomatic initiatives seeking to pressure Jerusalem to make concessions. But rather than aiding the tiny minority of Israelis who oppose the war, criticism from abroad has seemingly only solidified a national consensus that opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances. And that is something its foreign detractors as well as American Jews who are bitterly opposed to Israel’s government should try to understand.

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The drumbeat of incitement against Israel in Europe reached a fever pitch this past summer as the war in Gaza raged. But though the anti-Semitic tinged demonstrations in support of a “free Gaza” — albeit one that was ruled by Islamist terrorists raining down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities — have ceased, the incitement continues as does the diplomatic initiatives seeking to pressure Jerusalem to make concessions. But rather than aiding the tiny minority of Israelis who oppose the war, criticism from abroad has seemingly only solidified a national consensus that opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances. And that is something its foreign detractors as well as American Jews who are bitterly opposed to Israel’s government should try to understand.

Judging by developments in the last week, Israel is more isolated than ever. A new Swedish government announced that it would grant formal recognition to the Palestinian Authority as a state while the European Union made clear it planned to reevaluate bilateral ties with Israel unless it stopped building beyond the 1967 lines and failed to make progress in negotiations with the Palestinians. But rather than acting as a prod to Israel’s government or its people to rethink their stands on the dead-in-the-water peace process, there is no sign that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government is worried about its future or rethinking its actions. The events of the past summer have had the opposite effect on Israelis and that is reflected in the moves the prime minister is making toward moving up the dates of the next scheduled parliamentary election.

Having won a second consecutive term (and third overall) as prime minister in January 2013, no elections need be held in the country until at least 2017. But according to the Times of Israel, the prime minister’s decision to move up the date of his party’s primaries and to change procedures for selecting Knesset candidates all indicate that he intends to call for new elections sometime in the next year.

The reasons for this are obvious. In the wake of the war, what remains of Israel’s left-wing pro-peace camp is more discredited than ever. The centrist faction led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid that did so well in the last elections look to be badly beaten the next time voters have their say. Just as important is that Netanyahu is eager to shed what is left of the merger of his Likud Party with that of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael B’Aliya Party that has since been dissolved. Likud will win far more seats on its own next time out while its major right-wing partners Lieberman’s party and Economics Minister Naphtali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party will also likely be a big winner.

While a year is a lifetime in politics, there is little doubt the political landscape is shifting in favor of Netanyahu. While there is plenty of competition for the role of his eventual successor, no one, including Lapid, Lieberman, Bennett or Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor Party, seem to be credible alternatives to Netanyahu as prime minister. Which means that barring some unforeseen cataclysm, the prime minister and his party will be heavily favored to gain a third consecutive term that will place him in the same historic context as the nation’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.

In analyzing the reason for this it should be remembered that Netanyahu has never been personally popular and his party remains beset by what sometimes seem like more popular competitors for the votes of right-wingers.

But despite this, Netanyahu represents what is now a centrist consensus about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians. While a majority of Israelis still favor a two-state solution in theory and many would be happy to be rid of much of the West Bank, the Gaza war, they also recognize that in the absence of a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians, such moves are impossible.

With the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas still unable and/or unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, few believe more talks with the PA will accomplish anything. Moreover the growing popularity of Hamas after its futile war reflects support for its desire to destroy Israel and to go on fighting until that goal is accomplished. Given that the Islamist movement leads Abbas in polls of West Bankers that ensures that the PA will not be holding another election anytime in the near future. But it also signals Israelis that any theoretical deal concluded with Abbas would be meaningless if he is succeeded, either by election or coup, by Hamas.

While Israelis are drawing appropriate conclusions from these events, many American Jews and other erstwhile supporters of Israel are not. They continue to attack Netanyahu and, like the left-wing J Street lobby, think that Israel should be saved from itself. But instead of carping about a government that looks to be in power for the foreseeable future, those who claim to be both pro-Israel and pro-peace should think about the need to respect the judgment of the people who were under fire last summer. Israelis don’t want peace any less than Americans but unlike some of their critics, they have been paying attention to what Palestinians say and do. The terror tunnels and the rockets and the support for those who shoot them, not to mention the Palestinian rejection of peace offers, have convinced them that they have no peace partner. In the absence of proof they are wrong, American critics of Israeli democracy should pipe down.

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Coalition Talks Show Israeli Election Preserved Foreign Policy Status Quo

In the week since Israelis went to the polls the consistent narrative about the election in the Western press has been that the vote was a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was understandable since expectations for his Likud Party were so high going into the campaign. The 31 seats it won was fewer than the total that both the Likud and the Israel Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which had merged with Netanyahu’s faction, got in 2009 so it’s fair to interpret the result as being something less than a personal triumph for the prime minister. But many commentators have gone much farther than that and claimed the impressive showing for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party shows Israeli voters were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. The spin coming out of much of the liberal press is to depict the vote as one that will mandate a change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and force Netanyahu to return to peace talks.

The problem with this theory is that Lapid made it clear he had virtually no disagreements with Netanyahu on the peace process. That makes the talk about an Israeli shift to the left on peace a transparent attempt to misinterpret an election in which security issues were not important. But recent developments in the subsequent negotiations to put together a new government make it even more clear the influence of the right in the next cabinet will continue to be strong. As Haaretz reports, Lapid is coordinating his positions on the talks with Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi Party that also did well last week. The consensus appears to be that the two are aiming to create a new coalition between Likud and their two parties that will unite around the issue of changing the draft system and excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions that sat in Netanyahu’s last government. If that’s the way it plays out, it will be a defeat for the religious parties and their stranglehold on aspects of the country’s budget as well as their ability to ensure that Haredim don’t have to serve in the army. But Bennett’s prominent role in the next cabinet means that the chatter about a more centrist or even left-leaning approach to the Palestinians is more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration and the international press than Israeli reality.

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In the week since Israelis went to the polls the consistent narrative about the election in the Western press has been that the vote was a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was understandable since expectations for his Likud Party were so high going into the campaign. The 31 seats it won was fewer than the total that both the Likud and the Israel Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which had merged with Netanyahu’s faction, got in 2009 so it’s fair to interpret the result as being something less than a personal triumph for the prime minister. But many commentators have gone much farther than that and claimed the impressive showing for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party shows Israeli voters were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. The spin coming out of much of the liberal press is to depict the vote as one that will mandate a change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and force Netanyahu to return to peace talks.

The problem with this theory is that Lapid made it clear he had virtually no disagreements with Netanyahu on the peace process. That makes the talk about an Israeli shift to the left on peace a transparent attempt to misinterpret an election in which security issues were not important. But recent developments in the subsequent negotiations to put together a new government make it even more clear the influence of the right in the next cabinet will continue to be strong. As Haaretz reports, Lapid is coordinating his positions on the talks with Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi Party that also did well last week. The consensus appears to be that the two are aiming to create a new coalition between Likud and their two parties that will unite around the issue of changing the draft system and excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions that sat in Netanyahu’s last government. If that’s the way it plays out, it will be a defeat for the religious parties and their stranglehold on aspects of the country’s budget as well as their ability to ensure that Haredim don’t have to serve in the army. But Bennett’s prominent role in the next cabinet means that the chatter about a more centrist or even left-leaning approach to the Palestinians is more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration and the international press than Israeli reality.

The strong link between Lapid and Bennett may surprise foreign observers, but it makes perfect sense since both the secular backers of Yesh Atid and the modern Orthodox and pro-settlement voters of Habayit Hayehudi are united by their desire for a more equitable conscription system. Lapid won his 19 seats in the new Knesset by running on domestic issues like the draft as well as wresting control of the budget from the ultra-Orthodox, not by agreeing with the New York Times editorial page about dividing Jerusalem and other contentious peace process issues where his positions are virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu.

Bennett has publicly disparaged the idea of a two-state solution that both Netanyahu and Lapid endorse. But given the continued refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel despite Netanyahu’s pleas for them to return to talks, it’s not likely that this disagreement will be seen as either meaningful or an obstacle to the creation of a new coalition.

Indeed, as Haaretz points out, it is Lapid who is eager to get Bennett into the Cabinet over Netanyahu’s objections since the prime minister publicly quarreled with the nationalist leader who was once his top aide. With Bennett supporting Lapid’s desire to pry control of the Knesset Finance Committee from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, the real change from the vote will be in the allocations of government funds to yeshivas and other Haredi institutions, not a shift toward more concessions on territory that American liberals think will be Israel’s salvation.

A government led by Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett will make for an interesting personal dynamic around the cabinet table but it won’t mean that Israelis have rejected the prime minister’s philosophy about security. To the contrary, the election demonstrated that the national consensus about the peace process is so strong that Israelis felt free to cast their ballots on other issues. And since it was always a given that Netanyahu would remain prime minister, the vote was about who would serve with him, not rejecting his philosophy. That isn’t what the Western press or the Obama administration wants to hear. But as the coalition talks illustrate, most Israelis consider American ideas about what is in their country’s “best interests” as irrelevant to their real concerns.

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The Israeli Election and the Media’s Teachable Moment

After the 2012 presidential election, liberals gave conservatives a piece of advice: do some soul searching, and get out of your media bubble. Conservatives were wrong about the election, they were told, because they turned their assumptions into predictions. So it will be interesting to find out if the leftist foreign-policy press is ready to take its own advice, after a colossally botched year of coverage leading up to this week’s Israeli Knesset election.

In his wrap-up of just how wrong the media was, Walter Russell Mead gives his readers the following tip: “As negotiations to form a coalition government unfold in the next few weeks, expect more of the same from the MSM”–referring to the mainstream media. I imagine he’s right about that; the liberal press in America got the Israeli election so wrong because they get Israel itself so wrong. But it’s easy to understand how this happens by reading the article that Mead singles out as the “piece of journalism that got furthest away from the facts”–David Remnick’s essay in the New Yorker, dated for this week to coincide with the elections, on the rise of Israel’s right. Remnick writes:

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After the 2012 presidential election, liberals gave conservatives a piece of advice: do some soul searching, and get out of your media bubble. Conservatives were wrong about the election, they were told, because they turned their assumptions into predictions. So it will be interesting to find out if the leftist foreign-policy press is ready to take its own advice, after a colossally botched year of coverage leading up to this week’s Israeli Knesset election.

In his wrap-up of just how wrong the media was, Walter Russell Mead gives his readers the following tip: “As negotiations to form a coalition government unfold in the next few weeks, expect more of the same from the MSM”–referring to the mainstream media. I imagine he’s right about that; the liberal press in America got the Israeli election so wrong because they get Israel itself so wrong. But it’s easy to understand how this happens by reading the article that Mead singles out as the “piece of journalism that got furthest away from the facts”–David Remnick’s essay in the New Yorker, dated for this week to coincide with the elections, on the rise of Israel’s right. Remnick writes:

More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country. Just as a small coterie of socialist kibbutzniks dominated the ethos and the public institutions of Israel in the first decades of the state’s existence, the religious nationalists, led by the settlers, intend to do so now and in the years ahead. In the liberal tribune Haaretz, the columnist Ari Shavit wrote, “What is now happening is impossible to view as anything but the takeover by a colonial province of its mother country.”

If that strikes you as a bit overdone, and maybe a conclusion that should have been subjected to rigorous cynicism before endorsing it, what follows that in the article offers a map for how this came to be published with such certainty. The next paragraph begins with a contemptuous dismissal of the Labor Party’s election platform and its focus on domestic issues, without even a quote from the party. But those aren’t important issues, we are told, and Remnick knows this because in the next paragraph he quotes Tzipi Livni telling him so. Livni’s old party was almost shut out of the next Knesset completely, holding on to what looks to be two Knesset seats (down from 28 in the 2009 elections). It’s fair to say that Livni was wrong about the “core issues.”

Remnick’s pessimism about the settlements continues, as he follows Livni’s section of the story with quotes from the director of Peace Now’s “Settlement Watch” project. And that is followed by former Palestinian legislator Ghassan Khatib, who is then followed in the story by the pro-settlement politician Danny Danon. After that, Remnick talks about the left’s favoritoe Israeli bogeyman, Avigdor Lieberman, and moves on to how Theodor Herzl would disapprove.

You’ll notice one thing missing from all this: the Israeli voter. There is no discussion of what was actually bothering Israelis about the Netanyahu government or their rejection of Livni’s attempts to lead a credible opposition. Remnick deserves credit for much about the piece: he interviews people with whom he vehemently disagrees at length, and lets them speak for themselves. He doesn’t simply bring up old quotes from the rightist Moshe Feiglin, for example, but talks to Feiglin himself to see if that’s where he still stands on the issues. He does not seem to cherry-pick statements or conceal the context of his conversations from the reader.

But it’s an article full of politicians whose beliefs dovetail with Remnick’s own expectations. Yair Lapid, who was the big story of the election by leading his party to 19 seats, is mentioned exactly once. Labor, the other party that improved its standing greatly by addressing the kitchen-table issues that regular Israelis had been talking and fretting about, is virtually absent; Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich is not mentioned at all.

So should we expect more of this type of coverage from the media? History tells us that the writers and pundits who get Israel wrong do so consistently. But there’s a real opportunity here for a “teachable moment,” as our president might say. If you want to know what everyday Israelis think, just ask them. Trust me, they’ll tell you.

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It’s the Cost of Living, Stupid

As Jonathan noted, Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpectedly poor electoral showing resulted partly from his abysmal campaign. But it was also a clear vote of no-confidence in his policies. The problem, from the world’s perspective, is that what voters rejected wasn’t his foreign and defense policies. Rather, it was his domestic ones.

The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon has an excellent analysis of just how dominant domestic considerations were in this election. As he noted, the parties that significantly increased their parliamentary representation–Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home–campaigned almost exclusively on domestic issues. Even Bennett, who is unfairly caricatured overseas as representing “the extreme right,” ran mainly on domestic issues, capitalizing on his record as a successful high-tech entrepreneur. In contrast, parties that ran on diplomatic/security issues–Netanyahu’s Likud, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima–did poorly, aside from one exception: Meretz picked up the diehard peacenik votes Labor lost by focusing on domestic issues.

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As Jonathan noted, Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpectedly poor electoral showing resulted partly from his abysmal campaign. But it was also a clear vote of no-confidence in his policies. The problem, from the world’s perspective, is that what voters rejected wasn’t his foreign and defense policies. Rather, it was his domestic ones.

The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon has an excellent analysis of just how dominant domestic considerations were in this election. As he noted, the parties that significantly increased their parliamentary representation–Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home–campaigned almost exclusively on domestic issues. Even Bennett, who is unfairly caricatured overseas as representing “the extreme right,” ran mainly on domestic issues, capitalizing on his record as a successful high-tech entrepreneur. In contrast, parties that ran on diplomatic/security issues–Netanyahu’s Likud, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima–did poorly, aside from one exception: Meretz picked up the diehard peacenik votes Labor lost by focusing on domestic issues.

The same conclusion emerged from another Post reporter’s visit to the former Likud stronghold of south Tel Aviv (the city’s poorer neighborhoods): Person after person praised Netanyahu on security issues but panned him on bread-and-butter ones, and cited that as their reason for abandoning his party.

In an article for Commentary following the socioeconomic protests of summer 2011, I detailed the many pressing domestic issues Israel faced and warned that Netanyahu would be judged on whether he exploited the protests’ momentum to address them. As it turns out, he didn’t–and especially not the one most important to Israelis, the high cost of living. That partly explains how Lapid could come from nowhere to win 19 seats by running on pledges such as “Our children will be able to buy apartments” and “We’ll pay less for gasoline and electricity.”

Equally important, however, is that Israeli voters tend to vote tactically. And with Netanyahu seemingly a shoo-in for the next prime minister, they primarily focused on trying to ensure that his next coalition would be both willing and able to carry out the needed domestic reforms.

For this, a party that could replace the ultra-Orthodox in his coalition was essential. It’s not just that the ultra-Orthodox would block any attempt to make them serve in the army–something Israelis care about, but not as top priority. Far more important is that they’d block any other reforms aimed at benefiting the middle class. When the outgoing government proposed an initiative to create affordable middle-class housing, for instance, the ultra-Orthodox parties demanded that the criteria be altered to favor ultra-Orthodox applicants. And since he had no government without them, Netanyahu capitulated.

Yacimovich, having pledged not to join the government, couldn’t fill this role–and in any case, her economic views were too different from Netanyahu’s to make a partnership likely. Livni cared only about the nonexistent peace process, and would cheerfully sacrifice domestic reforms for freedom to pursue that goal (which the ultra-Orthodox would grant). But Lapid repeatedly promised his voters two things: He would join any government if at all possible, but not a government dependent on the ultra-Orthodox and incapable of carrying out reforms.

In short, he promised exactly the tactical solution that domestic-oriented voters were seeking. And in the final days of the campaign, when it became clear there were no better options, voters flocked to his banner.

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Netanyahu Rebuked But Still on Top

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.

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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.

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Can Yair Lapid Survive Success?

The big winner of Tuesday’s election in Israel was undoubtedly journalist Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party appears to have won 19 seats in the Knesset, coming out of nowhere to become the second-largest faction in the country’s parliament. Lapid capitalized on discontent about the cost of living as well as the resentment of Israel’s secular majority against the power of the ultra-Orthodox.

This is a great achievement for Lapid, and it has likely made him the lynchpin of any government organized by Prime Minister Netanyahu. It gives him the ability to name his price for joining the cabinet and he will undoubtedly influence policy on the economy as well as have the chance to thrill his secular supporters by actually helping to change the system by which most Haredim evade the draft. But it needs to be pointed out that although his success is extraordinary every previous such independent winner has crashed the next time they faced the voters. The interesting question to ask about Lapid in the aftermath of his win is whether he can evade the fate of every other secular/centrist party that has shot to the top in the last few decades of Israeli political history.

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The big winner of Tuesday’s election in Israel was undoubtedly journalist Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party appears to have won 19 seats in the Knesset, coming out of nowhere to become the second-largest faction in the country’s parliament. Lapid capitalized on discontent about the cost of living as well as the resentment of Israel’s secular majority against the power of the ultra-Orthodox.

This is a great achievement for Lapid, and it has likely made him the lynchpin of any government organized by Prime Minister Netanyahu. It gives him the ability to name his price for joining the cabinet and he will undoubtedly influence policy on the economy as well as have the chance to thrill his secular supporters by actually helping to change the system by which most Haredim evade the draft. But it needs to be pointed out that although his success is extraordinary every previous such independent winner has crashed the next time they faced the voters. The interesting question to ask about Lapid in the aftermath of his win is whether he can evade the fate of every other secular/centrist party that has shot to the top in the last few decades of Israeli political history.

Starting in 1977 when the Dash Party led by archeologist Yigal Yadin won 15 seats and became part of Menachem Begin’s first government, there have a steady string of such independent centrist groups that won the affection of Israel’s voters. But Dash, like Tzomet in 1992, the Third Way in 1996, the Center Party in 1999, the Shinui Party in 2003 (that won 15 seats under the leadership of Lapid’s father Yosef) and the Pensioners Party in 2006, collapsed at the next election. Each time, the religious parties that were the focus of voter outrage outlasted their would-be tormentors.

The fatal flaw of all these parties was that although they spoke to a desire on the part of Israeli voters to have an alternative to the traditional choices on the left and the right, such groupings inevitably were compromised by a decision to join the new government. Once in the cabinet these parties were able to secure patronage for their followers, but having done so, they could no longer pose as the outsiders looking to hold the establishment accountable. Nor could they maintain the voters’ enthusiasm in a country where war and peace issues are always the most important. And all failed to do the one thing that secular voters have demanded: create a more equitable system of compulsory military service that would no longer exempt the Haredim.

Lapid’s obvious interest in joining the government will leave him open to the charge that he, like his predecessors, is just looking to gain power rather than to stand for principle. Lapid is reportedly urging Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich to join with him in the next government, but she rightly understands that is not the path to future electoral success. The only way to get her once-dominant faction back to the point where it can claim to be one of the country’s two big parties will be to lead the opposition to Netanyahu rather than allow herself to be co-opted by him. That’s exactly the danger that Lapid’s success poses to his party, since if he does join the cabinet no matter how much he is able to influence the course of the government he won’t be able to campaign next time as an agent of change.

The one possible escape for Lapid is the chance that he and Netanyahu will actually be able to pass a new draft law. Doing so will absolve him to some extent from the charge that his party merely cashed in on its victory without accomplishing anything the way all those that came before him did. But even if he does manage to do that, it’s not clear whether it is possible for him to build his party and allow it to maintain its strength while serving as one of Netanyahu’s partners.

Lapid will be able to enjoy playing the kingmaker in the coming days and weeks as negotiations to form the next government unfold. But his real challenge will be trying to ensure that Yesh Atid is not just another one-election wonder.

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Netanyahu Wins, Religious Parties May Lose

The polls are closed in Israel and the counting of the ballots is now being conducted. But if the published exit polls are accurate, there is, as expected, no doubt about who will lead the next government. The exits show Netanyahu’s Likud getting 31 Knesset seats–far more than any other party. The parties making up the current coalition received 61 seats, a clear majority. But Netanyahu will have other options, and the big losers could be the religious parties that could wind up on the outside looking in at the next government.

That’s because the big winner of the election turned out to be journalist Yair Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid Party, whose main platform plank was support for a change in the conscription laws that would mandate the drafting of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces. That’s a proposition on which the Likud as well as the Jewish Home Party led by Naftali Bennett could easily agree. Netanyahu is already reportedly reaching out to Lapid to join him in a broad coalition that he would probably prefer to the current cabinet. It’s also something most non-Haredi Israelis will applaud.

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The polls are closed in Israel and the counting of the ballots is now being conducted. But if the published exit polls are accurate, there is, as expected, no doubt about who will lead the next government. The exits show Netanyahu’s Likud getting 31 Knesset seats–far more than any other party. The parties making up the current coalition received 61 seats, a clear majority. But Netanyahu will have other options, and the big losers could be the religious parties that could wind up on the outside looking in at the next government.

That’s because the big winner of the election turned out to be journalist Yair Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid Party, whose main platform plank was support for a change in the conscription laws that would mandate the drafting of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces. That’s a proposition on which the Likud as well as the Jewish Home Party led by Naftali Bennett could easily agree. Netanyahu is already reportedly reaching out to Lapid to join him in a broad coalition that he would probably prefer to the current cabinet. It’s also something most non-Haredi Israelis will applaud.

It should be remembered that exit polls are not actual votes and even if they do reflect the results, the army vote–which is counted last–could also change the results and tilt the numbers a bit more to the advantage of the nationalist parties.

Lapid has apparently won 18 or 19 seats, far more than the last polls showed him getting. Over the last week it appears Israel’s swing voters, who wanted to keep Netanyahu as prime minister but wanted to register a slight note of protest, went for Lapid’s list in larger numbers than those who voted for Bennett.

Though many, especially in the foreign press, tended to lump Lapid in with Labor as part of a center-left faction, his positions on security and defense issues are quite compatible with those of Netanyahu. His vote cannot be interpreted as a pro-peace protest against Netanyahu. Rather, it is very much in a long tradition of Israeli parties that capitalized on secular resentment against the power of the ultra-Orthodox parties. He ought to be able to exact a high price from Netanyahu, but there’s little doubt the prime minister will be happy to pay it since Lapid might be easier to deal with than the political extortionists at Shas and United Torah Judaism that are always available to sell their votes to the highest bidders. 

As for Bennett, his total fell short of his highest poll numbers. But he is still in a very strong position. His 12 seats make him an essential part of any coalition led by Netanyahu. He will act as a brake on any possible lurch to the left on the peace process, but given the lack of interest on the part of the Palestinian Authority in returning to negotiations, its doubtful that he has much to worry about. Moreover, his religious Zionist party won’t have any trouble supporting a change in the draft laws to ensure more Haredim serve in the army.

Another potential member of the next government would be Tzipi Livni. Her new Hatnua Party won approximately seven seats. There’s no love lost between Livni and Netanyahu, but if she refuses to join a coalition that already included Lapid, she would be effectively marginalized. That’s something Livni probably wouldn’t be able to stand. Of all the party leaders, she is the one left with the toughest choice.

One party that is unlikely to join Netanyahu would be Labor, which finished a disappointing third. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich knows that the only hope to build her party back to its position as one of Israel’s two biggest is by leading the opposition in the next Knesset. She will stand aside this time and hold onto the not-unreasonable hope that she will do far better the next time.

There will be those who will portray these numbers as something of a rebuke to Netanyahu, and there is something to that. But as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, his biggest problem in this vote was that he couldn’t lose. Since the lack of a serious alternative to him made his re-election a certainty, voters were free to support smaller parties rather than the Likud and therefore register their preference for the kind of coalition he would lead. Though Netanyahu would have liked to have a bigger total for Likud, he can’t be disappointed with the bottom line of this vote: he remains prime minister and will be able to pick and choose his coalition partners. The next government will be fractious and difficult to manage but for all of his problems, Netanyahu remains the only possible choice to be prime minister for the foreseeable future. 

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Netanyahu-Bashers Shouldn’t Rejoice

The buzz in Israel at this hour is that leaked exit polls are showing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may be doing far worse than expected in today’s election. The story is that Likud’s total of Knesset seats will drop below 30 and that centrist newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will wind up in second place, with right-wing star Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home also doing well and the Labor Party possibly dropping to third or even fourth place.

If true, this would cause a major shake-up in Israeli politics. But President Obama and other American liberal critics of Netanyahu shouldn’t get too excited. Even if the rumors and leaked polls are accurate, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu will still be leading the next Israeli government.

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The buzz in Israel at this hour is that leaked exit polls are showing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may be doing far worse than expected in today’s election. The story is that Likud’s total of Knesset seats will drop below 30 and that centrist newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will wind up in second place, with right-wing star Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home also doing well and the Labor Party possibly dropping to third or even fourth place.

If true, this would cause a major shake-up in Israeli politics. But President Obama and other American liberal critics of Netanyahu shouldn’t get too excited. Even if the rumors and leaked polls are accurate, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu will still be leading the next Israeli government.

A scenario in which Lapid and Bennett’s parties are big winners would certainly mean that Netanyahu would be weakened. But that was already in the cards, as his own party (which absorbed Avigdor Lieberman’s party prior to the campaign) had become one in which those to the right of the prime minister were going to have more influence.

But even a Likud that scores under 30 would still mean that right-wing and religious parties will wind up with more than a majority, meaning there is no chance of a government led by anyone but Netanyahu. However, the rise of Lapid does give the prime minister a chance to form a government without the religious parties since, if the rumors are correct, Yesh Atid could wind up with as many seats as those parties may get.

While Lapid is put in the same camp as left-wingers like Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich or Tzipi Livni, he has also made it clear that he is largely on the same page as Netanyahu when it comes to issues of war and peace. His priority is domestic politics, and principally in changing the law to ensure that the Haredim are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces like other Israelis. A coalition with Likud, Bennett (whose modern Orthodox and secular supporters also support draft equality) and Lapid is not out of the question. It would be a difficult marriage, but so would any possible collection of Israeli parties. If this happens, there will be no real shift in Israel’s position on borders or settlements.

We’ll find out later today whether the actual results will resemble the rumors (Israel is seven hours ahead of the Eastern United States, meaning that by mid-evening EST, we should have a good idea of what will happen). But even in the worst scenario for the Likud, Netanyahu is still on track to get his third term in the prime minister’s office. 

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The Markets Vote For Netanyahu

Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

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Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

Those who only know Israel through stories about the conflict with the Palestinians see the country through a prism that doesn’t take into account the amazing progress it has made in recent decades, as it was transformed from a third-world economy to one of the most dynamic markets in the world. It may be that not all of this has trickled down yet to many of Israel’s citizens who rightly complain about crony capitalism and high prices. But Israel’s strength is not only measured in the vaunted abilities of its armed forces. If it has been able to shrug off the disappointments of a peace process in which the country traded land for more terror rather than peace, it has been because its start-up nation economy has become a model for the world in terms of innovation.

This happened for a number of reasons, but the chief one was a commitment by its leaders to shedding the old socialist Labor Zionist model that helped create the nation but ill prepared it to compete in the global economy. Netanyahu played a key role in this change during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and his years as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. But as prime minister he has continued this progress, keeping a steady hand on the tiller and avoiding many of the problems experienced elsewhere in a challenging environment.

Stuck in a region with neighbors who won’t make peace and still besieged by terrorist movements that launch missile barrages into the country whenever they want to heat things up, Israel doesn’t have a normal economy or a normal political culture. But in spite of that, Netanyahu has received good marks for keeping the economy sound and largely resisted the demands to reverse course. That might have appeased some of his critics, but it would have set the country back. That took exactly the sort of political courage that, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama thinks he lacks. As Netanyahu embarks on his third overall and second consecutive term in office, the one certainty amid so many variables is that Israel’s finances are in good hands. 

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part One

The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

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The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

The first factor that may keep the conflict in check is something that the controversial Goldberg column made clear: the president may have learned his lesson about the peace process. Though Goldberg and the president both wrongly assume that Arab “moderates” want peace and need to be encouraged with “conciliatory gestures,” the writer notes that Obama understands that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is weak. He also knows that every attempt by the administration to pressure Netanyahu and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction on settlements, Jerusalem and border, was met with disinterest by the PA. Nothing Obama could do or say, no matter how damaging to Israel’s cause was enough to tempt Abbas back to the negotiating table. Indeed, the Palestinians’ decision to go to the United Nations to get recognition was not so much aimed at Israel, as it was an end run around the Obama administration.

Though Goldberg frames the president’s reluctance to repeat this cycle of misunderstand as a judgment on Netanyahu’s lack of interest in peace it is actually an indictment of the Palestinians. Had Abbas responded positively to any of Obama’s initiatives, he could have helped the president pin the prime minister down and perhaps even undermined his support at home. Netanyahu has already endorsed a two state solution and frozen settlements for a time to appease Obama and Abbas didn’t respond to either gesture.

Abbas is interested right now in making peace with Hamas, not Israel. He has stayed away from talks not because he thinks he can’t get a deal but because he fears being put in the same uncomfortable situation in which he found himself in 2008 when Ehud Olmert made the last Israeli offer of Palestinian independence including Jerusalem. Abbas knows he can’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and survive so he didn’t so much turn down Olmert as to flee the talks. He won’t allow himself to be that close to political extinction again.

Though, as Goldberg pointed out, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry may be eager to play the peace process game with the help of his European friends, President Obama may understand that heading down that dead end again is not worth any of his precious second term political capital. If the Palestinians go any further toward Fatah-Hamas unity and/or if a third intifada is launched that will effectively spike any hope for new negotiations no matter what Obama may personally want to do.

Obama may believe Israel is dooming itself to isolation but the majority of Israelis have paid closer attention to the last 20 years of attempts to make peace and know that further concessions would only worsen their security without bringing peace. Yet as much as he can’t stand Netanyahu, picking another fight with him over an issue that can’t be resolved due to Palestinian intransigence is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In parts two and three of this post I’ll examine the other factors that may keep U.S.-Israel tension in check.

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Obama Can’t Get Even With Netanyahu

The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

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The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

Likud might get some traction by highlighting Obama’s disapproval. Israelis are well aware that in the recent past American presidents have tried to intervene in their elections with mixed results. George H.W. Bush helped sink Yitzhak Shamir in 1992. Bill Clinton’s open rooting for Shimon Peres didn’t stop Netanyahu from winning his first term as prime minister in 1996 but American disapproval was a handicap when he was beaten in 1999. But the main point here is that while Israelis don’t relish the idea of being on the outs in Washington, they are also not interested in listening to advice from Obama.

The assumption underlying Goldberg’s article was that Netanyahu is isolating his country via policies that are not aimed at encouraging “Palestinian moderates.” The decision to allow building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and its suburbs that would be kept by Israel even if there were a two-state solution are seen by Obama and the Europeans as intolerable provocations that should be punished. By not making concessions on security and territory that might tempt the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Netanyahu is seen as uninterested in peace or as even making an accord impossible. But most Israelis see these issues very differently.

The parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition are cruising to what may be a landslide victory next week because, unlike Goldberg’s White House sources and most Western talking heads, the majority of Israeli voters understand that the Palestinians—both Hamas and the supposedly more moderate Fatah-led PA—are not going to make peace no matter what Netanyahu does. They also view the notion of further withdrawals as an invitation to create another terror state like the one in Gaza in the much larger West Bank alongside Israel’s population centers.

Where Israel was once closely divided between right and left on the issue of peace initiatives, the center has shifted in the country’s politics. What Obama and most Americans don’t get about Israel is that Netanyahu is not so much the leader of the right as he is now firmly ensconced in the middle of the political spectrum. That’s why so many on the right are flocking to the banner of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement party that polls show will make huge gains in the upcoming election. The main difference between Netanyahu and Bennett is that the former still pays lip service to a two-state solution as the theoretical best option for Israel even though the Palestinians will never accept it, while the latter’s campaign ads say that it is no more likely to happen than another season of “The Sopranos.”

Like so much commentary about the Middle East, Obama’s evaluation of the situation via Goldberg shows that he is still focusing only on what Israel does and ignoring the reality of a Palestinian political culture that is incapable of accepting peace. If real peace were an option, no Israeli political leader would be able to resist accepting it. Pretending that such a choice is available to Israel is mere posturing, not a policy. Any American who doesn’t understand that fact has no business spouting off about what is in Israel’s best interests.

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Netanyahu’s Only Real Opponent

One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.

As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.

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One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.

As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.

Any discussion of Peres’s place in Israeli history has to start with the acknowledgment that his many achievements over the last 60 years put him in the first rank of his country’s leaders. As he notes with his characteristic lack of modesty, the record is impressive:

I do not think there are many people in the world who can say they managed to bring down a 600 percent inflation rate, create a nuclear option in a small country, oversee the Entebbe operation, set up an aerospace industry and an arms-development authority, form deep diplomatic relations with France, launch a Sinai campaign to open the Straits of Tiran and put an end to terror from Gaza.

But as much as he deserves as much credit as any person for Israel’s survival and growth, he seems to be one of the few Israelis who haven’t noticed that his Oslo brainchild and the “New Middle East” fantasy that he promoted in the early 1990s at the height of peace process euphoria was a tragic flop that led to much loss of life. Peres rightly points out that the existence of settlements in the West Bank wouldn’t prevent a peace deal if the Palestinians were willing to sign one. But despite all the evidence to the contrary, Peres continues to have faith in the good intentions and desire for peace on the part of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, bizarrely proclaiming him “an excellent partner” for Israel.

While Peres is the darling of Netanyahu-bashers who credit the president with thwarting the prime minister’s moves toward a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, his faith in President Obama’s good will toward the Jewish state is equally out of touch with mainstream Israeli opinion. His equanimity about the Arab Spring as well as optimism about Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt also shows that he’s still living in the Oslo bubble.

This disconnect with both the reality of the region and the fact that the overwhelming majority of his countrymen have moved on from the failed Oslo process explains why the talk about a strong center-left opposition to Netanyahu on peace is more science fiction than political science. Of those parties that are supposed to be the core of this mythical anti-Bibi coalition, none actually support Peres’s vision. One, led by Yair Lapid, has explicitly rejected the politics of the left on foreign policy. The Labor Party that Peres once led has also avoided the peace process to concentrate on economic issues. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah is mainly about her ambition, not any real alternative to Netanyahu’s ideas.

Let’s also understand that Peres’s current popularity is largely based on the fact that he has abandoned electoral politics. For decades, Peres the politician was, despite his crucial role in so many Israeli successes, personally unpopular. Fairly or unfairly, he was seen as a schemer and the architect of “stinking maneuvers” that led to him losing an astonishing number of national elections. A desire to avoid adding one more to the total of those losses no doubt led to his decision not to challenge Netanyahu.

Though Peres won’t be on the ballot on January 22, his policies are. That they will be firmly rejected by the Israeli people should make it clear to his many admirers that although Peres deserves his place in the country’s history, the failure of his ideas are the primary reason why Netanyahu is about to win big. 

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Media Bias Israeli Style

The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

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The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

As Pfeffer notes, Diskin’s charges about what he believes are Netanyahu’s irresponsible attempts to push the security services to agree with him about the nuclear threat from Iran and the need for potential action on the issue have already been fully aired and largely ignored by the Israeli public. That’s because they know something that most foreign readers don’t about the political nature of the old boy network that runs the security services. The willingness of Diskin and his colleagues to go public with their carping about Netanyahu’s handling of an issue on which there is a pretty strong consensus within Israel—the need to take the Iranian nuclear threat seriously—tells us more about the way Diskin and his friends feel about the prime minister than anything else.

However, as Pfeffer also writes, one of the other factors driving the brazen Netanyahu-bashing in liberal outlets is the fact that a well-funded competitor with a very different political outlook has overtaken Yediot as the country’s highest circulation newspaper. Much like the way Fox News stole the thunder of the more liberal CNN and the American broadcast networks, Israel Hayom has ended the left-wing monopoly of the major Israeli dailies. Bankrolled by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Israel Hayom has given Israelis a free conservative alternative and they’ve made it the most read paper in the country.

While the influence of Adelson’s paper probably doesn’t equal that of the combined forces of the rest of liberal Israeli media, its pro-Netanyahu bias seems to have help driven that of its competitors over the cliff into what could almost be described as parody. But it appears the Israeli electorate is smart enough to see through the anger of the press and the hysteria about the “Diskin document.”

The ability of Netanyahu to survive the slings and arrows chucked at him by a frustrated Israeli media that knows the only question about the election is the size of his margin of victory shows that in one sense Eldar remains right. Israel’s voters are too sophisticated to be influenced by their biased press. 

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Netanyahu’s Problem: He Can’t Lose

There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

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There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu had the same problem four years ago when he won his second term as prime minister. Rather than vote for the Likud, many on the right then gave their votes to Lieberman. This time around those voters are flocking to the new Habayit Yehudi Party of Naftali Bennett as well as to the even more strident Otzma Leyisrael.

Bennett, the son of American immigrants who went on to be a member of the same elite army unit that produced Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then made millions on an Internet company, served as the prime minister’s chief of staff during his last time in opposition before they quarreled. He provides Israel’s right with its first truly charismatic figure since Netanyahu’s emergence a generation ago and his party’s astonishing rise in the polls shows that his appeal is broader than the settler constituency that was thought to be its only source of support.

However, rather than being forced to really choose between Netanyahu or Bennett, Israeli right-wingers can pick the latter without any fear that their defections will result in a left-wing government.

Though the results of the numerous Israeli polls vary to some degree, they all show the various center-right and religious parties that make up Netanyahu’s current government gaining in the vicinity of 70 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The only question is what percentage of those will be won directly by Netanyahu rather than Bennett.

The smaller the number gained by Netanyahu’s allies the more likely that he will be able to give them more insignificant Cabinet posts or replace them altogether with centrist lists like the new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or even the one led by Tzipi Livni, an otherwise bitter foe of the prime minister but one whose differences with him are more a matter of posturing and rival ambitions than ideology.

However if, as some surveys now indicate, Bennett’s party becomes the third or even the second biggest party eclipsing Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, who is likely to lead the opposition in the next Knesset, then Netanyahu’s options will be limited.

The reasons for Bennett’s rise are the same that has led Netanyahu to his preeminent position in his country’s politics. The Palestinians’ rejection of every peace feeler and embrace of violence and Hamas has created a new political reality in which the once predominant left has been marginalized. Though some Americans may wrongly see Netanyahu as an extremist, his views are now firmly in the center of the Israeli spectrum. Those to his right, such as Bennett, are merely slightly right of center rather than being viewed as beyond the pale. Though most Israelis do not share Bennett’s vision of West Bank settlement annexation, they see no reason to think about giving them away to the Palestinians in order to create another terrorist enclave like the one Hamas has in Gaza. 

Netanyahu might prefer to govern without Bennett’s interference, but the same set of circumstances that will keep him firmly in office have made it likely that his former aide will be a major factor in Israeli politics for years to come.

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