What just happened in Israel? When the dust settled after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempts to widen his coalition ended in apparent success, the result was a more right-wing government. That’s an accurate observation and will, no doubt, bring down more opprobrium on the government from foreign critics, especially American liberals, that will see it as unalterably opposed to peace. But the process that led to this result tells us something different.
While in the end, Netanyahu chose to make a deal that would expand his coalition with a right-wing party, the fact that the party he jilted at the last moment was the leading opposition faction illustrates the fact that on the really big issue facing the Israeli people — how to deal with the Palestinians and the peace process — there are no real differences between any of the mainstream parties. Though politics in Israel will remain fractious and nasty, no one should imagine that what has just happened demonstrates the prime minister’s weakness or that his approach to war and peace issues is discredited. To the contrary, the competition to sit at the Cabinet table with him shows that he not only remains in control of events but is also sitting in the political center of the nation rather than on the right as his foreign detractors think.
Having survived more than a year since his third election win in a row with a razor thin 61-member coalition in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu was determined to expand his margin for error, and he has apparently succeeded. After a very public flirtation and what apparently were substantive negotiations with the Zionist Union — the nation’s largest opposition party and the home of Labour, Israel’s traditional home for left-wingers and liberals — Netanyahu switched horses in the last day and made a deal with the sole right-wing party that hadn’t joined his government last year.
The addition of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu’s six seats gets the prime minister to a 67-member coalition ought to be enough to avoid the problems the prime minister had been having due to the constant fear that the absence of an MK on any given day will topple the governmental apple cart. Since there are no real ideological differences between Lieberman and Netanyahu, it removes a voice criticizing him from the right and gives him governmental responsibility.
It also helps solve a growing problem at the Cabinet since it gives him an excuse to replace Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had been causing problems with comments that placed him at odds with the prime minister over the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces. Yaalon now will either take a lesser portfolio or leave the Cabinet. At any rate, with this demotion Yaalon now joins the list of other potential successors to Netanyahu, who entertained the vain notion that they could challenge him within the Likud.
But the biggest loser out of this affair is Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog. A year ago, Herzog seemed to revive the fortunes of Labor by forming an alliance with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and leading the faction they formed to a strong second-place finish in the March 2015 election. That should have put him in a position to harry Netanyahu and set his party up for a better chance at victory the next time. But instead of revitalizing Israel’s left wing, Herzog seems to have crashed it.
What followed was something that dismayed Israeli leftists and shocked American liberals that are praying for Netanyahu’s demise. Herzog conceded that Netanyahu was basically right on the big issue that divided Israeli voters for the past 50 years: the peace process. Instead of pretending as most other leftists have done all these years that Israel giving up the West Bank and other territory would bring peace with the Palestinians, Herzog told the truth. In January, he said that Israel had no real peace partner and that the two-state solution that most Israelis longed for was an impossibility for the foreseeable future.
While Herzog had plenty of critical things to say about the prime minister, his ideas for different ways of managing the conflict until a sea change in the Palestinian political culture will allow peace were either unrealistic or no different from what Netanyahu was already doing. What happened next seemed inevitable. Herzog entered into negotiations with Netanyahu for a national unity government.
This set off some members of Labour, including the more liberal faction that he had displaced in the leadership of the party, as well as its media cheering section at the ultra-left Haaretz newspaper. They condemned the negotiations and damned Herzog for a traitor to his party. These critics got the last laugh because Netanyahu may never seriously intended to bring him into the Cabinet. He was just using Herzog for leverage in his talks with Lieberman. Instead of an unwieldy broad coalition, he’ll stick with a narrow right-wing government but one that is large enough to be more stable. This means that Netanyahu will not only outlast Barack Obama but will also have a better-than-average chance of remaining in office until at least the end of the decade, if not beyond it, and surpass Israeli founding father David Ben Gurion as the longest serving prime minister.
It will also weaken the Zionist Union. Herzog being played for a sap by Netanyahu may mean the end of his time as leader of Labour. If the party swings further to the left that will hurt its chances in future elections where, if the current polls are accurate, it will be replaced as the leading opposition party by Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid.
Where does this leave Israel?
Herzog’s leftist critics in his own party are happy about his likely demise and Netanyahu emerges again as this generation’s unrivaled champion of maneuvering. But there’s more to be gleaned from Netanyahu’s latest proof of his political skill than those conclusions.
The mere fact that a Likud-Labor coalition was not only possible but seemed the most likely scenario for some time should awaken the country’s critics to a basic fact about Israeli politics. While the competition for cabinet seats in Israel is fierce, the great dispute that foreigners imagine divides citizens of the Jewish state isn’t the locus of political debate. The world may think Israelis are still — as they were in the 1980s and 1990s — evenly split on the question of whether to trade land for peace with the Palestinians. But the election results as well as the coalition negotiations tell a different story.
Most Israelis, including many that voted for some of the right wing parties, would be willing to make such a swap and give up territory if it meant a real peace. But outside of the far left virtually no one thinks such an arrangement is possible because of the reality of Palestinian intransigence. Neither Herzog nor Lapid — the two potential replacements for Netanyahu as head of the country — really disagree with him about whether a two-state solution is desirable or if it can be implemented. All three agree it’s a good idea. All three also agree that it isn’t going to happen because the Palestinians are still unwilling to make peace and addicted to violence.
Israeli political strife is still intense but it is about economic issues and personalities since Netanyahu remains personally unpopular even though he has won three consecutive elections and would probably be favored for a fourth if it were held anytime soon. That means Americans who think the prime minister is wrong about peace should take into consideration the fact that most Israelis share his views. Though he is blasted regularly in the international and media as a right-wing extremist, he is on the left of his current coalition and smack dab in the center of Israel’s political spectrum at the moment. Netanyahu’s government may not be loved but it does represent the country’s consensus about peace. That may be astonishing to Americans, but it should also cause them to start thinking about whether it is time for them to give up illusions about the Palestinians and peace that the majority of voters in the Jewish state have long since abandoned.