Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli elections

Is One Vote Enough? Bibi Will Survive.

The conventional wisdom about the formation of Israel’s new government is that it can’t possibly survive. Due to former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s decision earlier this week to refuse to re-join Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet, what was expected to be a solid 67-vote majority for the next government was reduced to a slender 61-vote total in the 120-member Knesset. After last minute hardball negotiations with the Jewish Home Party, Netanyahu scraped in just before the deadline for the end of the negotiations with a coalition that is likely to be as fragile as it may be fractious. But Netanyahu’s legion of critics in both the U.S. and Israel shouldn’t get too excited. Though the smart money is betting that this coalition won’t last out the year, no one should assume that anyone other than him would be running Israel for the foreseeable future.

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The conventional wisdom about the formation of Israel’s new government is that it can’t possibly survive. Due to former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s decision earlier this week to refuse to re-join Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet, what was expected to be a solid 67-vote majority for the next government was reduced to a slender 61-vote total in the 120-member Knesset. After last minute hardball negotiations with the Jewish Home Party, Netanyahu scraped in just before the deadline for the end of the negotiations with a coalition that is likely to be as fragile as it may be fractious. But Netanyahu’s legion of critics in both the U.S. and Israel shouldn’t get too excited. Though the smart money is betting that this coalition won’t last out the year, no one should assume that anyone other than him would be running Israel for the foreseeable future.

The responsibility for this state of affairs is being widely blamed on Netanyahu’s arrogance and bad judgment. There is some truth to this since the prime minister was foolish to think he would make things much better when he decided to go to new elections only two years after winning a second consecutive (and third overall) term in 2013.

The coalition he had forged in 2013 with a combination of right wing and centrist parties was at cross-purposes with itself. In Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni he hadn’t so much formed a Cabinet of rivals as a dysfunctional therapy group. But the assumption that he could easily assemble a new government from Likud’s traditional right wing and religious party partners was a trifle over-optimistic. Indeed, in the last days of the campaign, it seemed as if he was doomed to defeat. But a last day surge back in his direction enabled Netanyahu to score a decisive victory with Likud winning the most seats of any party in the last decade. That set up what looked to be a set of difficult negotiations with Likud breakaway Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party as well as the right-wing partners in his last government, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Naphtali Bennett’s Jewish Home.

The assumption was that eventually these parties and the religious factions would fall in line and sign up for the next government. Some thought if that didn’t work out, Netanyahu would be able to bring in Yitzhak Herzog and his Labor-led Zionist Union Party to make a unity government that embraced rightist, centrist and left wing parties.

But those calculations didn’t count on both Lieberman and Herzog coming to the conclusion that their future prospects would best be served by staying out of the government. Being Netanyahu’s junior partner allowed Lieberman to claim the foreign ministry but it also undermined the rationale for his party’s existence and led to a drastic diminution of its numbers. Just as Lapid had belatedly recognized that being co-opted by the prime minister would be the death of his centrist faction, so, too, did Lieberman also realized that another stint in the Cabinet would be the end of his party even if it did advance the nationalist principles that he claimed to advocate.

Similarly, Herzog recognized that while a national unity government might be in the nation’s best interests in a time of crisis, that wouldn’t give his Labor colleagues the opportunity to blast everything the prime minister was doing. With an eye on the next elections whenever they might occur, he sought to enhance his credibility with the public by staying in the opposition.

Thus, while it might make some sense to blame this standoff on Netanyahu’s prickly personality and the dismissive way he treats friends as well as foes, that factor may not really be the reason the prime minister was only able to amass 61 votes for his new Cabinet. Even if he were far more charming or loyal than he is, Netanyahu wasn’t going to be able to persuade either Lieberman or Herzog to act against their own political interests. The problem is not so much Netanyahu as it is an electoral system that has never yet produced a result that enabled any of the country’s leading parties to form a government on their own. That left the prime minister dependent on Bennett who exacted a stiff price for joining the government just before the six-week period for forming a government expired.

With only 61 votes, Netanyahu is now vulnerable to the whims of any one of his partners. If offended or just for the fun of it, any one of them can topple the government. So it’s hardly surprising that a lot of savvy observers think the rickety edifice won’t stand and that Netanyahu will be forced to call new elections before too long. That would expose him to another uncertain bout with the voters and the next time he might not do as well as the last.

But predictions of the beginning of the end for Netanyahu are premature.

First, narrow coalitions have survived in Israel before and this one may do the same. Though those outside of the government may hope for its collapse, everyone on the inside of it has a vested interest in its survival in the short term. None are likely to do better in a new election. Nor would Netanyahu’s partners stand to benefit if he were forced to come to terms with Herzog. That’s especially true of Bennett, who is the main beneficiary of Lieberman’s defection.

A collapse generated by an unexpected squabble or controversy is certainly possible. But it is just as likely that at some point, Lieberman will come to the conclusion that being in the opposition isn’t boosting his prospects of surviving the next election. Herzog may also decide that it might serve his interests to become foreign minister and deputy prime minister (Netanyahu’s standing offer to him) prior to the next vote in order to boost his prestige and gravitas.

So even if Netanyahu’s Cabinet does come to blows in the coming months and new elections are the result, President Obama, American Jewish left-wingers and all the many other members of the “I hate Bibi” club need to prepare themselves for another bitter truth. The political map of Israel shows no sign of a radical change in the near future. The political left may persuade itself that it is gradually gaining ground on the Likud and its natural partners on the right. But the truth is that so long as Labor is tied to the failed  policies of its past that depended on a non-existent Palestinian desire for peace, it won’t be leading an Israeli government. The odds are, another election will yield the same result as the last three with Netanyahu on top and a rotating cast of characters filling out his Cabinet. Even if his 61-vote government doesn’t survive, Netanyahu will.

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A Plea for Sanity in the Battle over Bibi

Last week, Bloomberg released a poll on partisan attitudes in the U.S. toward Israel that was immediately misunderstood by a vast swath of the commentariat. It wasn’t completely the commentators’ fault. They should have read it more carefully, but the poll was worded in such a way as to be more than useless; it was irresponsible. And while the poor polling question can excuse some of the confusion, it shouldn’t excuse the hysterical commentary it inspired in some quarters, though it was revealing to get an unfiltered look at what some pundits really think about Israel.

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Last week, Bloomberg released a poll on partisan attitudes in the U.S. toward Israel that was immediately misunderstood by a vast swath of the commentariat. It wasn’t completely the commentators’ fault. They should have read it more carefully, but the poll was worded in such a way as to be more than useless; it was irresponsible. And while the poor polling question can excuse some of the confusion, it shouldn’t excuse the hysterical commentary it inspired in some quarters, though it was revealing to get an unfiltered look at what some pundits really think about Israel.

One question in the poll found, as paraphrased by a Bloomberg reporter, that Republicans were “more sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than to their own president, 67 percent to 16 percent, while Democrats are more sympathetic to President Barack Obama than to Israel’s prime minister, 76 percent to 9 percent.” The reporter’s choice of phrasing “than to their own president” (my italics) is telling, and was reflected in some of the more extreme responses to the poll.

But the question that confused people was as follows:

When it comes to relations between the U.S. and Israel, which of the following do you agree with more?

(Read options. Rotate.)

45            Israel is an important ally, the only democracy in the region, and we should support it even if our interests diverge

47            Israel is an ally but we should pursue America’s interests when we disagree with them

8            Not sure

Republicans were more likely to give the first answer, Democrats the second.

The problematic nature of the wording becomes clear as soon as you read the actual poll question. But reporting on the poll may have taken the form of a game of “telephone.” Bloomberg’s own report on its poll muddied the waters immediately, suggesting that the poll said that Republicans opted for supporting Israel in a zero-sum faceoff when our interests diverged with those of the Israelis. But that’s not what the question says. It’s not an either/or question.

For example: a few years ago then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave an interview to the Washington Post. During the course of the interview, Barak was asked about the Syrian civil war. He responded that the Assads should be removed from power if possible but only their innermost circle; stability should be prioritized over total revolution. Barak was clearly nervous about Syria being a repeat of Egypt, where a stability-minded dictator was removed and replaced (temporarily) with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood who intended to shift Egypt’s allegiances toward Israel’s (and the West’s) enemies in the region.

But that was not American policy at the time, at least on paper. Washington was leaning toward a wholesale power shift, with the caveat that it be brought about by negotiations.

According to the common interpretation of the Bloomberg poll, that meant that support for Israel should at that point disappear until the two were back on the same page. A similar conflict even arose over Ukraine. Should the disagreement over Ukraine have imperiled the alliance?

Of course not. Sometimes our interests diverge. Those times are the exceptions, not the rule. And it would be silly to suggest that “support” for Israel should be untenable at that time. Sometimes we disagree, it’s really as simple as that.

Additionally, not all conflicts can be weighed equally. For example: let’s say you believe it’s in America’s interest to have an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that removes Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, ignores Israeli security needs in the West Bank, and includes a deal on refugees that would put Israel’s demographic future in question. The majority of Israelis would oppose those terms. Should Americans support it? Is it enough that it’s in America’s interest, in your opinion, or should Israeli sovereignty and self-determination predominate? Barack Obama thought it was in America’s interest to interfere in Israel’s election. Is it wrong for an American to disagree and to hold that Israel’s democratic process should be respected?

You get the point. Moreover, the American sympathy for Israel is based not only on mutual strategic interests but also on history, religion, politics–the works. What poll respondents are saying is that the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong enough to withstand the occasional argument.

But if you were looking to misread the poll, it would be easy to do so. Slate’s William Saletan wrote a bizarre column using the poll to attack Republicans as disloyal. What Republicans revealed when they invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress “against the will of a Democratic president” (His Majesty will not be pleased) and again by the Republicans surveyed in the Bloomberg poll is that “They have adopted Netanyahu as their leader.” Here’s Saletan’s conclusion:

That split points to a more fundamental challenge. Does a majority of the Republican Party identify more with Israeli interests than with American interests? When Israel’s prime minister speaks on the floor of Congress, do Republicans feel more allegiance to him than to their president? If so, will the feeling subside once Obama leaves office? Or does it signify an enduring rift in the fabric of this country?

So are Republicans permanent traitors taking orders from the Israeli government, or will they one day love their country again? Stay tuned!

The heated rhetoric around Netanyahu has lost all proportion. And it isn’t limited to the anti-Bibi guns on the left. Just before the Israeli elections, NRO’s Quin Hillyer wrote a column headlined “Israelis Should Send Obama a Message of Defiance.” The column had high praise for Netanyahu, and also included this strange concern:

Americans who love Israel will, of course, continue to love it regardless. But we fear that, without Netanyahu’s leadership, there will be less of Israel left to love.

If he was speaking figuratively, that plainly makes no sense. If he was speaking literally–as in, the other side would throw a fire sale on Israeli land–it ignores the reality on the ground as well as the more hawkish tendencies of Labor leader Isaac Herzog, to say nothing of the fact that Bibi himself presided over a two-track negotiating process with the Palestinians that he let one of his main political rivals lead.

Look, Netanyahu’s an eloquent spokesman for Western ideals and values, and it’s easy to see why English-speaking conservatives enjoy his leadership. But even while winning a convincing victory, his party still only won less than a quarter of the vote. Israel is a diverse country with diverse politics. Bibi is a product of Israel; Israel is not a product of Bibi.

Both sides should keep this in mind, but the left obviously needs this reminder more than the right. Because even at its most adulatory, American admiration for Netanyahu is not treasonous. And the simple fact that it’s being treated as if it were should serve as a much-needed wake-up call for American liberals.

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Peter Beinart’s Israeli Democracy Problem

Last week after Israeli voters once again rejected the candidates and the policies that he believes would be best for them, writer Peter Beinart had a temper tantrum. Instead of accepting the verdict of the democratic process as did the leaders of Israel’s loyal opposition, Beinart wrote in Haaretz that American Jews must begin a campaign aimed at invalidating the votes of Israelis and to begin a “pressure process” that would force them to bow to his demands that they make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Jewish state believe are, at best, misguided. I wrote here that this rant showed Beinart’s contempt for the democratic process, and that the premises of his argument–that Israel had not taken “risks for peace,” that “the election was not fought in the shadow of terror,” and that the Obama administration had not exerted pressure on Israel–were not so much mistaken as blatantly false. In response he wrote yesterday in Haaretz to assert that I was mistaken about the obligation to respect democratic elections as well as to claim that I was a hypocrite because I had not supported efforts to prop up Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. But his response not only fails to address the substance of my criticism; it is as disingenuous as his original argument.

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Last week after Israeli voters once again rejected the candidates and the policies that he believes would be best for them, writer Peter Beinart had a temper tantrum. Instead of accepting the verdict of the democratic process as did the leaders of Israel’s loyal opposition, Beinart wrote in Haaretz that American Jews must begin a campaign aimed at invalidating the votes of Israelis and to begin a “pressure process” that would force them to bow to his demands that they make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Jewish state believe are, at best, misguided. I wrote here that this rant showed Beinart’s contempt for the democratic process, and that the premises of his argument–that Israel had not taken “risks for peace,” that “the election was not fought in the shadow of terror,” and that the Obama administration had not exerted pressure on Israel–were not so much mistaken as blatantly false. In response he wrote yesterday in Haaretz to assert that I was mistaken about the obligation to respect democratic elections as well as to claim that I was a hypocrite because I had not supported efforts to prop up Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. But his response not only fails to address the substance of my criticism; it is as disingenuous as his original argument.

Beinart does not trouble himself to account for his staggeringly mendacious claims about Israel’s past attempts to negotiate peace or his comments about the threat from terrorism. Beinart shoves three Israeli offers of statehood to the Palestinians by non-Likud governments from 2000 to 2008 that they rejected, as well as their stonewalling during the talks last year, down the memory hole. With his no “shadow of terror” remark, he does the same for last year’s war with Hamas in which thousands of Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli cities and the fact that any Israeli schoolchild knows that the only thing preventing another campaign of suicide bombing is the West Bank security barrier, not forbearance by Hamas or Fatah killers. As for the last six years of President Obama’s sniping at Israel’s government, that is also too insignificant a detail for Beinart to notice.

These points are important because they illustrate that Beinart’s arguments are based on a willful disregard for the facts that have influenced Israeli voters to hand the last three elections to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his party despite the fact that neither he nor the Likud is all that popular.

Beinart is right when he says the fact that Israelis have elected a Knesset with a clear majority opposed to his policies does not obligate him to agree with their judgment. In fact, I stated as much myself. One can vocally oppose the policies of any government without exposing oneself to the charge of contempt for democracy. But Beinart isn’t content anymore to merely voice criticism, however uninformed or contemptuous of the facts he may have been. The point is, he explicitly wrote that what must now happen is for Americans to rise up and back measures by the U.S. government that will overturn the judgment of Israel’s voters. Instead of continuing to try and persuade them of the wisdom of his suggestions, he now says what he wants is for Israelis to be isolated, economically and politically, and to be treated as a pariah state. If that is not contempt for the democratic process as played out in Israel, I don’t know what else it can be called.

It is true that, in theory, the voters of one democracy are not obliged to respect the decisions of voters in other countries. But this is no mere policy dispute. He alleges that Israel is a “brutal, undemocratic and unjust power” because it has rightly decided that allowing the creation of another terrorist state on its borders—like the one it allowed to rise up in Gaza—is unwise. What he is doing is not disagreement but delegitimization.

He also argues that because the Arab residents of the West Bank are not allowed to vote in Israel’s elections, it cannot be said to be a democracy there. This again is a willfully misleading argument. If the people of the West Bank can’t vote in an election, it is due entirely to the fact that the leaders of the Palestinian Authority have consistently rejected offers of statehood and independence for their people because doing so would also require them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders would be drawn, next door. As he well knows, the majority of Israelis would have been happy to embrace a two-state solution. But the Palestinians have never been able to do so because it means ending the conflict with Zionism and their national identity has been inextricably tied to that war since its inception. If Israelis have, at least for the moment, given up on two states, it is not because they don’t think it’s a good idea, but because they recognize the Palestinians aren’t interested in it, something that Beinart refuses to accept despite ample proof.

The status quo is both anomalous and unsatisfactory, but its continuation is not due to Netanyahu’s decisions or statements. It is the work of the Palestinians. They have constructed this status quo just as they did the security barrier, which they forced a reluctant Israeli government to build to keep out terrorists. Asking Israelis to ignore these facts and to place their population centers next to another Hamasistan is neither consistent with affection for their existence nor reasonable. Nor is it something that was likely to happen even if Netanyahu had been defeated and replaced with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. Comparing Netanyahu to racist segregationists or any other evil figures in history tells us more about Beinart than the prime minister. When the political culture of the Palestinians changes to allow them to accept a state alongside Israel, they will get it. Until that happens, blaming Israel for Palestinian irredentism and hate merely denies agency to the Arab side of the conflict.

As for his claim that I’m being hypocritical because of my lack of support for Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, that is mere sophistry.

It is true that the Brotherhood won an election after the fall of the Mubarak regime. But any comparison between the victory of a party advocating a totalitarian theocracy, whose ability to turn out its supporters or coerce others to do so bears little resemblance to the normal democratic process, and true democrats is absurd. The Brotherhood’s goal was to transform Egypt into another Gaza or Iran and to enact the usual Third World practice of “one man, one vote, one time” to ensure that its hold on power could never be endangered. A year after it came to power, tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand its ouster and the military complied. That’s a sorry tale and one that shows how hard it is to create a democracy in a country with no democratic traditions or consensus about governance. Applauding the demise of an anti-democratic Islamist movement is not only consistent with belief in democracy; it was a precondition for any hope (albeit a very slim one) that Egypt will ever become a democracy.

Perhaps in Beinart’s fevered imagination, he thinks the Likud is analogous to the Brotherhood. This is a transparent libel of a party that has, since its inception, always abided by democratic norms in a way that Hamas’s Islamist ally has never done. What Beinart would like is for Israel’s people to rise up against the Likud as Egyptians did against the Brotherhood. If they did, Netanyahu’s government would fall. But not only have they failed to do so, they just gave him a third consecutive victory because, unlike Beinart, they have paid attention to what the Palestinians have done and said about peace.

That has to be frustrating for Beinart, but the answer for those who care about democracy to failure in an election is not an attempt to overturn the vote by foreign pressure but to work harder to give your ideas a fair hearing and to persuade Israelis to change their minds. Beinart has clearly tired of trying to do that and now places himself in the ranks of those seeking to treat its democratically elected government as pariahs. That is why, along with others, I have written that he has contempt for democracy. The charge stands.

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Two States: In Principle? Yes. Now? No.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement today claiming that he still favors a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t likely to persuade his detractors that he wants peace. The day before his decisive victory in Tuesday’s election, he vowed that there would be no Palestinian state established on his watch. This provoked a torrent of international criticism and served as justification for Obama administration threats to abandon Israel at the United Nations. But while Netanyahu can certainly be accused with some justice of being a cynical flip-flopper, this episode doesn’t justify the claims that Israel wasn’t negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians during the past few years. Nor is it entirely illogical. In fact, the two statements show that Netanyahu is very much in tune with the views of most Israelis. They support a two-state solution with the Palestinians in principle. But they also know that isn’t a realistic option under the current circumstances.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement today claiming that he still favors a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t likely to persuade his detractors that he wants peace. The day before his decisive victory in Tuesday’s election, he vowed that there would be no Palestinian state established on his watch. This provoked a torrent of international criticism and served as justification for Obama administration threats to abandon Israel at the United Nations. But while Netanyahu can certainly be accused with some justice of being a cynical flip-flopper, this episode doesn’t justify the claims that Israel wasn’t negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians during the past few years. Nor is it entirely illogical. In fact, the two statements show that Netanyahu is very much in tune with the views of most Israelis. They support a two-state solution with the Palestinians in principle. But they also know that isn’t a realistic option under the current circumstances.

Let’s concede that Netanyahu’s comments about not allowing the creation of a Palestinian state while he was prime minister was a brazen attempt to lure voters away from right-wing allies in order to boost his Likud Party totals. But whether this was necessary or not, it must be accepted that it helped him and that it was not unfair of critics to conclude that he was retracting his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech in which he accepted a two-states as the basis for peace. But his subsequent effort in an interview with NBC’s Andrew Mitchell to claim that he still favors such a solution is, while seemingly inconsistent, actually correct.

Whatever he may have said on Monday, the left’s talking point about the campaign proving that Netanyahu had been lying for six years doesn’t hold water. Whether you like the prime minister or loathe him, the fact remains that Netanyahu did freeze settlement building at President Obama’s behest. He also sent his recent electoral opponent Tzipi Livni to negotiate peace with Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. As we now know, documents have revealed that he went a long way toward accommodating Kerry’s ideas for a framework during those talks and even Livni concedes that it was Abbas who torpedoed them by never negotiating in good faith. Had Abbas been serious about a two state solution at any point during the last six years he could have said he was willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state but he refused to do so no matter where its borders might be drawn. He also continued to assert that he could never give up the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Both stands are reflective of the fact that Palestinian nationalism has always been inextricably tied to the war on Zionism. Assuming he wanted to, Abbas is incapable of abandoning these stands and surviving. Hamas has no interest in such a scenario.

Moreover, Palestinian actions during the last 20 years of peace processing have convinced the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters, including many who voted for Netanyahu’s opponents, that neither Abbas nor his Hamas rivals ruling in Gaza have any interest in signing a peace agreement that will end the conflict for all time. Even if you want to ignore what happened in the 1990s when Yasir Arafat was running the Palestinian Authority and it set out on a course of fomenting hatred and subsidizing terrorism, Abbas’s record is not better. In 2008, he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of independence and a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem just as Arafat had done in 2000 and 2001. Even worse, after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the strip has become an independent Palestinian state in all but name and transformed into a base for terrorism by its Hamas rulers.

Under those circumstances and with the PA refusing to hold elections about of fear that the corrupt kleptocracy that runs the West Bank might be replaced by their Islamist rivals, it’s little wonder most Israeli voters think Netanyahu was right when he warned that two states now meant another Hamasistan next to the Jewish state’s population centers.

A two state solution in which a demilitarized Palestinian state lives peacefully next to Israel with both Jews and Arabs free to live unmolested on either side of the border is the ideal solution to the conflict. But until a sea change in the Palestinian political culture happens to make that an actual possibility rather than merely a fantasy, no rational Israeli government would consent to a complete withdrawal from the territory.

Is it possible to oppose a two-state solution under the current circumstances but to be for it in principle? Netanyahu’s detractors would argue that it isn’t. What’s more they claim that his vow and his “Hamasistan” comments show that he merely wants to preserve the status quo.

But this reflects the basic myth that has been the foundation of the mistaken policies pursued by the Obama administration. Like some on the Jewish left, they’ve wrongly assumed that the only thing that is missing for peace to become a reality is a willingness on Israel’s part to take risks to achieve it. But Israel has been taking such risks for 20 years and has discovered that it traded land for terror, not peace. That realization has rendered the Israeli left unelectable and given Netanyahu a fourth term in office. Even if Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union had beaten the Likud on Tuesday, he was no more likely to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu.

It’s long past time for the United States to stop pretending that Palestinian intransigence and terror are the real obstacles to peace. Peace will happen when the Palestinians decide they are ready for a two state solution that has always been favored more by Israelis than Arabs. Until that happens, it can remain a theoretical goal but one that, like Netanyahu, sensible Israelis will not choose to pursue under the present circumstances.

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U.S. Should “Re-Evaluate” Peace Process

Swallowing hard, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Obama would be calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory in yesterday’s Knesset election. But it’s likely that the conversation, which may be their first in months after Obama shut down direct communications with the prime minister after his decision to directly challenge the administration’s Iran policy in a speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this month will center on their disagreements and not on expressions of good will. Earnest said the president remains committed to a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict that Netanyahu said he wouldn’t accept during the last days of his campaign. The spokesman said that would mean the U.S. would “re-evaluate our approach” to the conflict with the Palestinians. If so, it’s good advice since President Obama’s approach to the Middle East has been flawed since the day he took office.

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Swallowing hard, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Obama would be calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory in yesterday’s Knesset election. But it’s likely that the conversation, which may be their first in months after Obama shut down direct communications with the prime minister after his decision to directly challenge the administration’s Iran policy in a speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this month will center on their disagreements and not on expressions of good will. Earnest said the president remains committed to a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict that Netanyahu said he wouldn’t accept during the last days of his campaign. The spokesman said that would mean the U.S. would “re-evaluate our approach” to the conflict with the Palestinians. If so, it’s good advice since President Obama’s approach to the Middle East has been flawed since the day he took office.

The talk of re-evaluating was, no doubt, intended as a warning to Israel not a sign of much-needed introspection. The White House is hoping that Netanyahu will see it as a warning that if he doesn’t do as he is told, the administration might cease defending Israel at the United Nations and instead join European efforts to isolate the Jewish state by recognizing Palestinian independence without first making them make peace with Israel and granting them sovereignty over borders that should be negotiated rather than imposed on the parties.

This is neither an idle threat nor one that wouldn’t hurt Israel. If the Palestinians were to realize their fantasy of getting the UN Security Council to pass a resolution recognizing their independence in the territories taken by Israel during the Six Day War, including Jerusalem, it would do more than to relieve them of any obligation to negotiate peace with Israel. It would also put the United Nations officially behind a campaign to isolate Israel that could do real damage to the Jewish state’s ability to defend itself.

The administration could also seek to cut back on military aid to Israel and pursue other efforts to downgrade the alliance.

But if that’s what Obama is contemplating as he prepares for the third act of his stormy relationship with Netanyahu, he needs to step back and think long and hard about the implications of a policy that would be based more in spite than in the interests of either the United States or the cause of peace.

Should the U.S. use Netanyahu’s comments about a two-state solution to abandon Israel at the UN, it will do more than create a diplomatic problem. Just as they have since January 2009, the Palestinians will interpret efforts by the administration to distance itself from Israel as an invitation to further intransigence and perhaps violence. In particular, Hamas, which has been rapidly re-arming after last summer’s war in Gaza, may think it time to start another terrorist offensive in which Israeli cities will be targeted by missiles. The Islamist group, under pressure from Egypt, which is held in as long regard by the administration as Israel, may hope that this time around President Obama will use the violence not only to heighten pressure on Israel but also to cut off arms re-supplies again.

As for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, a U.S. diplomatic offensive against Israel would remove any incentive on his part to budge from his past refusals to give up the right of return or to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. If progress toward peace, rather than venting his spleen at Netanyahu is the actual objective of U.S. policy these days, he might take a deep breath today and step back from the brink.

An honest re-evaluation of U.S. policy during the past six years would recognize that the key mistake made by President Obama has been his obsessive focus on pressuring Israel and pushing negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that has no interest in peace talks.

While his left-wing critics have claimed that Netanyahu’s statement about preventing a Palestinian state means he has been deceiving the world the past six years about his support for a two-state solution, the truth is that it is the Palestinians who have rendered that stand obsolete. During the years in which he did back two states and even observed a settlement freeze and agreed to U.S. frameworks about the talks, the Palestinians never once budged off their refusal to negotiate in good faith.

Indeed, Obama’s focus on opposing Israeli policies has been so myopic that he has failed to hold Abbas accountable for his actions such as signing a unity deal with Hamas terrorists or violating his Oslo Accords commitments not to make an end run around direct talks by going to the UN. It must be understood that Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state is as much a commentary on the refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate or to accept one as it is on the prime minister’s ideology. Most Israelis want peace and two states more than the Palestinians. But they understand that merely wishing for it won’t make it happen if the Arabs continue to say no.

A serious re-evaluation of America’s Middle East policy might be one that realized that until a sea change in Palestinian politics that will permit a leader like Abbas to make peace, an investment of U.S. time and energy on negotiations is a fool’s errand.

A U.S. abandonment of Israel in international forums will do American interests as much harm as it does the Jewish state since such actions will have the effect of marginalizing U.S. diplomacy and interests. But more than that, American signals that will be interpreted by Hamas and perhaps even Hezbollah that it is open season on Israel, could start wars that will further destabilize the Middle East.

A re-evaluation is in order but doing so should involve Obama’s admitting error more than Netanyahu. Much of the commentary about President Obama’s final two years in office have focused on his intention to do as he likes and build his legacy without regard to the political constraints imposed him by the bipartisan coalition backing Israel. But given the likely cost in blood that such a course may involve, the president might do well to consider that such a course of further pointless confrontation with the Netanyahu government may do more harm to his place in history than good.

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Can Americans Understand Israel’s Vote?

Read accounts of Israel’s elections in the mainstream liberal media today and you get a sense of the frustration and anger the Obama administration and its press cheering section feel about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decisive victory. The fulminations in today’s New York Times editorial articulate this point of view with its denunciations of Netanyahu’s repudiation of a Palestinian state as well as dark warnings about the implications of his comments about Israeli voters needing to offset the impact of Arabs voting for anti-Zionist parties. But even if we leave aside the ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu in which he was denounced as both “craven” and a “demagogue,” the point of the piece was to essentially delegitimize the results. The question remains whether most Americans, including Jewish friends of Israel, will be as clueless as the Times about the reason for Netanyahu’s big win.

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Read accounts of Israel’s elections in the mainstream liberal media today and you get a sense of the frustration and anger the Obama administration and its press cheering section feel about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decisive victory. The fulminations in today’s New York Times editorial articulate this point of view with its denunciations of Netanyahu’s repudiation of a Palestinian state as well as dark warnings about the implications of his comments about Israeli voters needing to offset the impact of Arabs voting for anti-Zionist parties. But even if we leave aside the ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu in which he was denounced as both “craven” and a “demagogue,” the point of the piece was to essentially delegitimize the results. The question remains whether most Americans, including Jewish friends of Israel, will be as clueless as the Times about the reason for Netanyahu’s big win.

There should be no misunderstanding about the magnitude of Netanyahu’s victory. In the context of Israel’s multi-party system which encourages the growth of splinter parties and in which no party in its history has ever won a majority on its own, the Likud’s winning of 30 seats to its Labor-led Zionist Union rival’s 24 was an unexpectedly decisive result. Combined with the fact that his right wing and religious party allies more-or-less maintained their strength as a whole, the predominance of what Israelis call the “national camp” that has existed since the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the collapse of the Oslo Peace Accords is undiminished. Indeed, far from illustrating that the Likud represented the far right, the vote showed it to be smack in the center of the Israeli political spectrum.

How then do we explain Netanyahu’s comments about a Palestinian state and Arab voters that have been universally denounced in the West and seen, in the eyes of the Times editors, as proof that Israeli voters are vulnerable to scaremongering and racism?

It is true that Netanyahu needed to rally his base, large numbers of which were prepared to vote for smaller right wing parties rather than the Likud. The expectation was that pandering to that voter group would cause him to lose moderates. But it didn’t happen because few in Israel were that outraged about Netanyahu writing off the possibility of a Palestinian state. That’s not because they don’t want a two-state solution but because they know the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected one and the chance of sovereignty and peace.

Faced with two Palestinian dictatorships on either of their flanks — Islamist Hamas terrorists in Gaza and corrupt authoritarian Fatah in the West Bank — the prospect of territorial withdrawals to further empower either faction seems irrational to mainstream Israeli voters. Few in Israel outside of the far left expected the Netanyahu or even his rival Isaac Herzog would have the opportunity to sign a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state under any circumstances. Though the election had largely been fought on domestic and economic issues, Netanyahu’s late reminders to the public of their consensus on security helped turn a close election into what is by the standards of the Jewish state, a rout.

Similarly, Netanyahu’s remarks about Arab voters being mobilized by foreign-funded activists to vote didn’t alienate the average Israeli voter because they know that the prospect of a government put into office via the support of the avowedly anti-Zionist Arab parties (a coalition of Islamists, Communists and radical Arab nationalists that rationalize if not support terrorism) that oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and its right to self-defense was a prospect that few contemplated with equanimity.

Simply put, his victory was not achieved by pandering to irrationality but because of the common sense of most Israeli voters who have a far better grasp of the realities of the Middle East than the editors of the Times. As I noted yesterday as the results were being counted, the impact of Netanyahu’s last minute appeals was due to the realism of the voters, not their racism.

But to note this begs the question as to whether Americans and their political leaders will be sufficiently influenced by the massive bias against Netanyahu in most of the media? No one can answer that question with absolute certainty but there are good reasons to be hopeful.

Unlike the sour grapes expressed by the editors of the Times and the sullen silence of the Obama administration (which has yet to congratulate Netanyahu on his stunning victory), most Americans actually do respect democracy. More to the point, they know that Israel is our only democratic ally in a Middle East where the administration’s priority has been to foster a spirit of détente with a vicious Islamist dictatorship in Iran. Just as they assume that they understand their local politics and problems better than the supposed experts in Washington, they assume that Israelis understand the Middle East better than Obama or the editors of the Times. Had they not thought so, support for Israel over the last few years or, in fact, the last generation, as a biased mainstream media consistently blasted Israel for defending its existence against terrorist threats, would not have remained so strong.

There have been some voices raised on the left that are essentially calling for Israel to become a partisan issue between Republicans (pro) and Democrats (con). That is a theme we heard a lot of during the weeks prior to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the Iranian nuclear threat and it is something that the administration seems to be encouraging despite its pro forma declarations of support for Israel. Yet the reaction to that speech illustrated that such efforts are bound to fall flat. The overwhelming majority of Republicans and what is still a clear majority of Democrats still support the alliance that is rooted in common values that are embedded in the political DNA of this country.

Doomsayers notwithstanding the overwhelming majority of Americans still back Israel and understand that asking them to make suicidal concessions is neither reasonable nor likely to strengthen America’s security. Though many assume that Americans, like Europeans, will eventually abandon Israel because of its refusal to do as Obama and the left demand, sympathy for Zionism and the Jewish state in the U.S. remains strong enough to withstand this challenge. That won’t change simply because the president and the liberal press don’t like Netanyahu or the outcome of a democratic election.

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The Israeli Left Hates the Israeli People

Israel’s left will be disappointed by last night’s election results. That is to be expected and no one could hold it against them. They have an alternative vision for advancing the welfare of their country and, for the moment at least, the opportunity to implement that vision has slipped from their grasp. What is less acceptable is the way in which some on Israel’s left seem to have reacted with uncontrolled outbursts of animosity and hatred. We might be able to understand their hatred for Netanyahu and the Likud. But their unashamed hatred for their own country is a different matter. Nothing encapsulates this attitude more than Gideon Levy’s piece in today’s Haaretz: Netanyahu deserves the Israeli People, and they deserve him. With an attitude like that you wonder if these people ever really had Israel’s best interests at heart.

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Israel’s left will be disappointed by last night’s election results. That is to be expected and no one could hold it against them. They have an alternative vision for advancing the welfare of their country and, for the moment at least, the opportunity to implement that vision has slipped from their grasp. What is less acceptable is the way in which some on Israel’s left seem to have reacted with uncontrolled outbursts of animosity and hatred. We might be able to understand their hatred for Netanyahu and the Likud. But their unashamed hatred for their own country is a different matter. Nothing encapsulates this attitude more than Gideon Levy’s piece in today’s Haaretz: Netanyahu deserves the Israeli People, and they deserve him. With an attitude like that you wonder if these people ever really had Israel’s best interests at heart.

Levy’s post-election musings read more like an adolescent “hope you’re both very happy together” rant, followed by an almighty slamming of the bedroom door. Of course, like most people who utter that phrase, Levy clearly has no desire to see Bibi or the Israeli public finding happiness. Rather, he insists that the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu heralds the way to Israel’s demise. “On Tuesday the foundations were laid for the apartheid state that is to come,” Haaretz’s prophet of doom warns.

As is often the case with Levy’s writing, this piece is rather incongruous. The ideas and propositions don’t exactly flow coherently from one to the next. And buried in that piece are such eloquent lines as “Dear Likud voters, what the hell do you say ‘yes’ to?” and “Piss off, dear world, we’re on our own. Please don’t interfere, we’re asleep, the people are with Netanyahu.” Apparently the language being employed by the Israeli left is now becoming almost as course and abusive as some of what’s been coming out of the left in America lately too.

Of course, what Levy and Israel’s left are confronting is the unbridgeable gap that exists between their own worldview and reality. While they claim to be the guardians of democracy, the only ones who can rescue the democratic system from the jaws of the neo-fascist Israeli right, it is clear that not only is the democratic system actually functioning just fine thank you very much, but time and again it is rejecting the left. Worse still, it is the very left wing parties who claim to be the heirs of Israel’s socialist past that are polling best in many of Israel’s affluent municipalities; whereas it is Netanyahu’s free market Likud that is winning in working class neighborhoods.

The people keep speaking and they keep rejecting the parties that claim to be the populist parties of the people and the democratic process. How to make sense of this? “This is the result of years’ worth of brainwashing and incitement” Levy insists, unconvincingly. No, it can’t be that Israelis made a rational assessment of the threats their country faces, weighed up the likely ability of the various candidates to meet those threats, and then submitted their well-considered votes accordingly. Nor could it be that the left failed to articulate its positions convincingly. And it certainly can’t be that what happened was what happens in most elections around the world; that the various sections of society simply voted in a way that they believed best advanced their own various interests. It’s obvious; that Netanyahu brainwashed everyone.

But perhaps even Levy isn’t really convinced by that claim. For elsewhere he states his feelings far more clearly when he states simply; “The nation must be replaced. Not another election for the country’s leadership, but general elections to choose a new Israeli people – immediately.” That’s it, Israel’s public falls so woefully short of being worthy of implementing Levy’s lofty ideals that it’d be better to just be rid of them and find a new public instead.

After that bombshell, it would be difficult to be surprised by anything else Levy writes. Yet he concludes his piece by arguing that the international community will ultimately punish Israel, and that that will be a good thing. “The only consolation is that another Netanyahu term will prompt the world to act. That possibility is our only refuge,” concludes Levy. But that statement is not so very far from the words of Haaretz’s former editor David Landau who notoriously told then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “Israel wants to be raped by the United States.” For its own good you understand, to save Israel from itself.

If it wasn’t clear then, it should be very clear reading Levy’s piece now that, quite simply, much of the Israeli left hates its own country and just about all the people who live there.

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The Election that Didn’t Happen Matters Far More than the One that Did

In the West, where regular elections are taken for granted, what interested people about yesterday’s Israeli ballot was the outcome. But in the Middle East, many were envious of the very fact that it took place. Nowhere was this truer than among Palestinians, who haven’t had an election in 10 years – not because Israel is preventing them from doing so, but because their own leadership is. And anyone who actually cares about the peace process ought to be far more worried by the Palestinian election that didn’t happen than by the outcome of the Israeli one that did.

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In the West, where regular elections are taken for granted, what interested people about yesterday’s Israeli ballot was the outcome. But in the Middle East, many were envious of the very fact that it took place. Nowhere was this truer than among Palestinians, who haven’t had an election in 10 years – not because Israel is preventing them from doing so, but because their own leadership is. And anyone who actually cares about the peace process ought to be far more worried by the Palestinian election that didn’t happen than by the outcome of the Israeli one that did.

A veteran Palestinian journalist from Ramallah summed up the prevailing sentiment succinctly. “We say all these bad things about Israel, but at least the people there have the right to vote and enjoy democracy,” he told Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh before the election. “We really envy the Israelis. Our leaders don’t want elections. They want to remain in office forever.”

Ghanem Nuseibeh, an East Jerusalem Palestinian now living in Britain, put out an illuminating series of tweets throughout Election Day, including, “Over a million Arabs take part in Middle East’s most democratic elections today”; “The Arabs in Israel are the only Middle East Arab group that practices true democracy”; and “Israel is secure not because it will elect Bibi or Buji, but because of what it is doing today.” He was rooting for Isaac Herzog (“Buji”) and deplored Benjamin Netanyahu, but after acknowledging that his candidate had lost, he nevertheless tweeted, “Israel is the world’s most vibrant democracy” …. “If an Arab country had the same wide spectrum of political parties as Israel does, it would be fighting a civil war unseen in human history.”

Astoundingly, even Hamas in Gaza issued numerous tweets urging Israeli Arabs to vote for the Arab parties’ Joint List. One can only imagine what Gaza residents must have felt at seeing Hamas urge Palestinian Israelis to exercise a right Palestinians in Gaza are denied by their own Hamas-run government.

The absence of Palestinian elections can’t be blamed on “the occupation,” since said “occupation” didn’t prevent elections for the Palestinian Authority from being held in both 1994 and 2005/2006. Rather, it’s entirely the choice of the Palestinians’ own rival governments – Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Both have steadfastly refused to call new elections for fear of losing power.

Nor is the vote the only right Palestinians’ own governments deny them. They are also deprived of other basic civil rights like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Both Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank routinely arrest and intimidate journalists; consequently, a recent study found, fully 80% of Palestinian journalists say they self-censor. Palestinians also face arrest even for Facebook posts criticizing their respective governments.

But aside from the fact that this denial of basic civil rights is bad in general, it has real implications for the peace process. Here, another of Nuseibeh’s Election Day tweets is instructive: “Neither the PA nor Bibi want peace. Difference is Israel can remove its own obstacle for peace, through free elections.”

Even if one disputes his assessment of Netanyahu, Abbas or both, his basic point is unarguable: If Israelis see a chance for peace and consider their own prime minister an obstacle to it, they can unseat him – an option they’ve in fact exercised in the past. Palestinians have no such option.

But the problem goes deeper than that – because Abbas, now in the 11th year of his four-year term, also lacks the democratic legitimacy needed to make the kind of concessions any peace agreement would entail. Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid summed up the issue bluntly in a lecture to the Limmud UK conference in December: Abbas, he told his shocked audience, will never be able to make peace with Israel, because he currently represents nobody except himself, his wife and his two sons.

And this does much to explain what most Western leaders consider the deplorable outcome of yesterday’s Israeli vote. As a poll taken last week showed, fully 64% of Israeli Jews agree that “no matter which party forms the next government the peace process with the Palestinians will not advance because there is no solution to the dispute,” and an identical 64% believe “the Palestinian leadership will not show greater flexibility and readiness for concessions” if Herzog replaces Netanyahu. In other words, Israelis saw no reason to vote for a premier more enthusiastic about pursuing peace talks because they saw no answering enthusiasm from the Palestinian side. Had they faced a new Palestinian government that did show interest in making peace, I suspect Israelis would choose Herzog over Netanyahu by a large majority.

Thus if Western leaders are serious about wanting Israeli-Palestinian peace, working to rectify the lack of Palestinian democracy would be far more productive than wringing their hands over the choices made by Israel’s democracy. For precisely because Israelis can always change their minds again in a few years, the Palestinian democracy deficit is far more detrimental to the prospects for peace than the outcome of any Israeli election ever could be.

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Netanyahu’s Historic Win — and Obama’s Humiliating Loss

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning victory yesterday — polls at the end of last week had people writing off his chances — means he will become only the second person to be elected prime minister for a third term (the other being Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion). “King Bibi” has established himself as one of the dominant figures in the history of the modern state of Israel. Mr. Netanyahu is hardly a person without flaws. But for those of us who admire his toughness and moral clarity on world events — and who appreciate his obvious love for his nation and for ours — it was a splendid turn of events.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning victory yesterday — polls at the end of last week had people writing off his chances — means he will become only the second person to be elected prime minister for a third term (the other being Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion). “King Bibi” has established himself as one of the dominant figures in the history of the modern state of Israel. Mr. Netanyahu is hardly a person without flaws. But for those of us who admire his toughness and moral clarity on world events — and who appreciate his obvious love for his nation and for ours — it was a splendid turn of events.

As for the current occupant of the White House, it was a disastrous one.

Barack Obama has an obsessive animosity when it comes to Prime Minister Netanyahu, which he has demonstrated time and again. So much so that Obama and his aides did everything they could to influence the Israeli election, from smearing Mr. Netanyahu — referring to him as a “coward” and a “chickens***” — to childishly elevating a difference over Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress into a foreign policy crisis to perhaps illegally funneling money to oust the sitting leader of Israel. We know that Jeremy Bird, who served as Obama’s deputy national campaign director in 2008 and his national campaign director in 2012, arrived in Israel in January to help unseat Mr. Netanyahu. This is all quite astonishing, even unprecedented. Benjamin Netanyahu may have won without the outside interference by Obama — but what Obama & Company did certainly helped.

I’m reminded of the self-inflicted “stunning setback” Mr. Obama suffered in 2009, when he and Mrs. Obama put their prestige on the line — they both flew to Copenhagen to make an appeal to the IOC — to get Chicago the 2016 Olympics. Chicago was eliminated on the first ballot. This time, the stakes were much higher and the damage done to Mr. Obama’s reputation far greater. .

There’s quite a pattern Mr. Obama has established in foreign policy during his presidency. He has failed in almost every instance, from his efforts at personal diplomacy to his policies. Remember the “new beginning” with the Arab and Muslim world? That claim now seems risible. Indeed, our relations with nation after nation — Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Canada, Israel, India, Australia, Honduras, Brazil, Germany, and Great Britain, to name just a few — are worse now than they were when Mr. Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. As for Mr. Obama’s claim that al Qaeda was “decimated,” in congressional testimony recently, Mr. Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.” And the terrorist group the president famously referred to as the “jayvee team” just last year is now the best-armed, best-funded terrorist group on earth, controlling “a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations.”

Mr. Obama’s clumsy and malicious mishandling of relations with Israel, then, is but one brick in a wall of failure and infamy. The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu emerged victorious in his confrontation with Barack Obama — a confrontation whose root cause can be traced to Obama’s hostility not just to Netanyahu but to Israel (a point I’ve elaborated on here) — is a heartening development in a world that is increasingly chaotic and violent.

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U.S. Alliance Will Survive Barack-Bibi, Act 3

Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

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Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

The White House will say the right things about applauding Israeli democracy and working with anyone elected by the people of the Jewish state. But the president and his foreign policy team are bitterly disappointed with the prospect of Netanyahu’s re-election. It was always going to take a decisive win for Herzog, such as the four-seat advantage that the last opinion polls published last week before the election predicted, for the Labor leader to have a chance at putting together a coalition and that margin of victory evaporated as right-wing voters came home to Likud in order to save the prime minister. So the odds are, the administration is just going to have to stand by impotently and watch as its least-favorite foreign leader assembles a government for his fourth term in office.

Another 22 months of contention between Obama and Netanyahu will be problematic for the alliance. The president is poised to sign a framework with Iran over its nuclear program that will ensure that the Islamist regime becomes a threshold nuclear power and, just as important, gives U.S. acquiescence if not approval to Iran’s domination of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That creates a far more dangerous Middle East and the real possibility of nuclear proliferation as Arab nations, which share Israel’s fears about Iran and the president’s feckless pursuit of détente with Tehran, begin thinking of their own deterrent.

Other than a risky and highly unlikely decision to launch a military strike on Iran on its own, there will not be much that Israel can do about this. But it can quietly support efforts by Congress to hold a weak Iran deal up to scrutiny and to hold the president and his new entente partners accountable. Expect a lot more sniping on this score between Washington and Jerusalem but barring Iran walking away from talks in which Obama appears to be giving them everything they could want, Netanyahu can’t be much of an obstacle to the president’s plans

But that won’t be the only issue on which the two governments will clash. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have also indicated that they will try to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process with the Palestinians. If so, we can expect the U.S. to repeat the same behavior that has characterized the first six years of the Obama presidency in which major pressure is brought to bear on Israel to make concessions while the Palestinians continue to refuse to make peace under any circumstances.

This will be difficult for Netanyahu, especially since he repudiated the two-state solution in the days leading up to the election. But Obama’s leverage here is limited. By opposing Israel’s effort to hold onto a united Jerusalem and the settlement blocs where most West Bank Jews live, the president has always been playing on Netanyahu’s turf and where he can turn disputes with Washington to his advantage. Netanyahu will stand his ground and not suffer for it at home while the Palestinians continue to stiff a president who has done everything in his power to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction.

It is true that Obama can up the ante on Netanyahu by abandoning a policy of supporting Israel in the United Nations as the Palestinians continue to violate their Oslo Accords obligation to negotiate rather than to attempt to gain recognition from the world body. But if that happens, it will create as many problems for him and the Democratic Party as it does for Israel.

It should be remembered that the 22-month period during which a re-elected Netanyahu will be forced to deal with Obama will coincide with the 2016 presidential election campaign. It is true that as a lame duck, he needn’t fear the voters even as he attempts to put more daylight between the U.S. and its only democratic ally in the Middle East. But Democrats who will be eager to hold onto the White House will not be happy if the president spends his last year in office alienating pro-Israel voters by venting his spleen at Netanyahu. Even if his liberal base has no affection for the prime minister, an overt tilt against Israel at the UN would probably place Obama at odds with Hillary Clinton who will be eager to demonstrate her pro-Israel bona fides. It will also give Republicans another stick to beat Democrats with as they seek to win back the White House.

What this boils down to is that as much as the president detests Netanyahu and has little love for his country, the infrastructure of the alliance, in Congress and the defense establishment is too strong for him to destroy. As he learned last summer when the Department of Defense was automatically transferring arms to Israel during the Gaza war, it takes more than a spat orchestrated by the White House to derail an alliance that has such broad bipartisan political support. As the president learned during the weeks leading up to Netanyahu’s controversial Iran speech to Congress earlier this month, even when the Israeli plays into their hands, the White House has shown a tendency to overplay their hand in a way that only helps the pro-Israel community.

More than all this, a re-elected Netanyahu will be in a position where time will be on his side. As the countdown for Obama’s exit from the White House begins, the prime minister will know that no matter who wins in 2016, they are likely to be far friendly to Israel than the current incumbent. He can afford to wait until January 2017 when he can count on a new relationship with an Obama successor who will be eager to prove his or her bona fides.

The months ahead will be difficult ones for Israel as Obama seethes about his foe’s victory. But as much as Obama has already undermined Israel’s security, his ability to do more damage is constrained by the realities of American politics than can neither be undone nor wished away.

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Why Did Bibi Win? Realism, Not Racism.

Within moments of the announcement of the exit polls, some of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics were claiming his likely win in today’s Knesset election was the result of a crude, racist appeal to voters. The justification for this charge was a speech made by Netanyahu and released only on social media because of restrictions on campaign appeals in the media, telling the country that left-wing groups funded by foreign money were busing Arab voters to the polls in order to elect a left-wing government led by his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog. Netanyahu’s opponents interpreted this as an appeal to racism. The statement was unfortunate because it made it seem as if the prime minister viewed Arab voters as somehow illegitimate. But the voters likely saw it in a different light. The prospect of a left-wing government that depended on the Joint Arab List was always unlikely. But a critical mass of voters viewed the prospect with alarm not because they’re racists but because a government that relied on the votes of anti-Zionists that favor Israel’s dissolution was something they considered a danger to the future of their country.

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Within moments of the announcement of the exit polls, some of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics were claiming his likely win in today’s Knesset election was the result of a crude, racist appeal to voters. The justification for this charge was a speech made by Netanyahu and released only on social media because of restrictions on campaign appeals in the media, telling the country that left-wing groups funded by foreign money were busing Arab voters to the polls in order to elect a left-wing government led by his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog. Netanyahu’s opponents interpreted this as an appeal to racism. The statement was unfortunate because it made it seem as if the prime minister viewed Arab voters as somehow illegitimate. But the voters likely saw it in a different light. The prospect of a left-wing government that depended on the Joint Arab List was always unlikely. But a critical mass of voters viewed the prospect with alarm not because they’re racists but because a government that relied on the votes of anti-Zionists that favor Israel’s dissolution was something they considered a danger to the future of their country.

Despite the expectation that dissatisfaction Netanyahu would lead to the end of his career, Netanyahu appears to have survived and will likely surpass David Ben Gurion as the country’s longest serving prime minister. Only a few days ago this was considered unlikely because the polls showed Herzog’s Labor-led party with a solid four-seat lead. But just as Netanyahu’s numbers were depressed in 2009 and 2013 because of the widespread belief that he couldn’t lose, the belief that he was finished had the opposite effect. A significant number of voters who might have gone for other right-wing parties such as Naphtali Bennet’s Jewish Home, went back to Likud in the final days in order to prevent a victory for the left.

But what those venturing opinions about the election must understand is that despite the hopes of the Israeli left and its foreign supporters (including one particular fan in the White House), the basic political alignment of the country remained unchanged. The center-right and religious parties retained a clear majority over the parties of the left. Likud’s natural allies outnumber those of the left. The only way for Herzog to become prime minister was to assemble an unlikely coalition of the left, secular and ultra-Orthodox parties. Even then, he might still need the support from the anti-Zionist Arab list composed of Communists, Islamists and radical Arab nationalists.

Contrary to the implications of Netanyahu’s statement, the increased turnout of Arab voters is a good thing for the country. Israeli Arabs should be invested in their country and take advantage of its democratic system. But the small gains by the Joint Arab List — which seems to have won 13 seats over the 11 won by the elements of its coalition, previously — won’t make much of a difference because the new Knesset members will remain in the minority. It is also a near certainty that the three factions will split once the dust settles from the election.

Even some of Israel’s friends in the United States may be asking themselves how is it possible for the Jewish state’s voters to give a majority to parties that are unlikely to agree to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The answer is that unlike most Americans, Israel’s voters have been paying attention to the history of the conflict over the past 20 years and know that Herzog was no more likely to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu. Nor is it fair to brand Netanyahu, who did not denigrate the right of Arabs to vote, a racist. There is no comparison between the efforts of minorities to vote in Western democracies or the United States and the desire of the Arab parties to destroy Israel. That’s because the Palestinian leadership, split between Hamas and Fatah, has consistently refused peace offers that would have given them independence. Most Israelis would like a two-state solution to happen but they know that under the current circumstances any withdrawal from the West Bank might duplicate the disastrous retreat from Gaza in 2005. Though Western journalists mocked Netanyahu’s comments about wanting to prevent a “Hamasistan” in the West Bank, the voters in Israel largely agreed.

That doesn’t make them racist or extreme. It means they are, like most Americans, realists. They may not like Netanyahu but today’s results demonstrates that there is little support for a government that would make the sort of concessions to the Palestinians that President Obama would like. They rightly believe that even if Israel did make more concessions it would only lead to more violence, not peace. Israel’s foreign critics and friends need to understand that in the end, it was those convictions have, for all intents and purposes, re-elected Netanyahu.

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Netanyahu Won’t Create a Palestinian State. Neither Will Herzog.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals to right-wing voters set off a storm on Twitter among his left-wing and liberal critics. Though Netanyahu had publicly embraced the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict years ago and had offered statehood to the Palestinians in the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry, yesterday he vowed that such a thing would never happen if he were reelected. For those who refused to blame the Palestinians for repeatedly refusing such offers from Netanyahu and his predecessors, this is a chance to claim that the lack of peace is the prime minister’s fault after all. Even worse, some are now claiming that he had been tricking President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Are they right? Not really. Though Netanyahu may be justly accused of flip-flopping now, that doesn’t justify past Palestinian refusals of peace offers. More to the point, despite his continued embraced of the idea, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog isn’t any more likely to sign a deal to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu if he wins the election.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals to right-wing voters set off a storm on Twitter among his left-wing and liberal critics. Though Netanyahu had publicly embraced the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict years ago and had offered statehood to the Palestinians in the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry, yesterday he vowed that such a thing would never happen if he were reelected. For those who refused to blame the Palestinians for repeatedly refusing such offers from Netanyahu and his predecessors, this is a chance to claim that the lack of peace is the prime minister’s fault after all. Even worse, some are now claiming that he had been tricking President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Are they right? Not really. Though Netanyahu may be justly accused of flip-flopping now, that doesn’t justify past Palestinian refusals of peace offers. More to the point, despite his continued embraced of the idea, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog isn’t any more likely to sign a deal to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu if he wins the election.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog and their principal supporters have been at pains to differentiate their stands on security issues. That fits Netanyahu’s narrative in which he depicts himself as the only thing standing between Israel and a left-wing government that would give away Jerusalem and allow the creation of another “Hamasistan” in the West Bank like the one in Gaza. By contrast, Herzog has encouraged the U.S. government (if not the Israeli people) to think of him as far more reasonable than Netanyahu on the peace process. Moreover, Herzog does talk as if he could actually entice the Palestinians to accept a two-state solution that would respect Israel’s security needs and recognize its legitimacy, thus ending the conflict.

But the truth about their differences is a lot less dramatic than either of them would have us believe.

Netanyahu is talking tough now that he needs center-right voters to abandon the small parties they have embraced because they assumed the Likud would lead the next government. So rather than appeal to moderates, he’s now telling them that if they want to avoid the nightmare of a terrorist run state in Jerusalem, they must vote for the Likud. But throughout his nine years as prime minister he has always shown a willingness to negotiate and even make concessions on settlements and territory. It was he who withdrew Israeli troops from Hebron during his first term. He froze settlement building in the West Bank during his second term though he got no credit from President Obama for doing so. And it was Netanyahu, despite his current impassioned denials, who made it clear to both the Americans and the Palestinians that he would agree to a Palestinian state on terms very similar to the generous offer made by his predecessor Ehud Olmert. If he is reelected, you can bet he will saunter back to the center as he has done before.

By contrast, for all of the expectations he has encouraged about making progress toward peace, Herzog has campaigned in Israel opposing the division of Jerusalem, a sine qua non for any agreement that Abbas would even think about discussing. Nor does he oppose building in the Jewish neighborhoods built in the city since the 1967 war. And he supports holding onto the same West Bank settlement blocs that the Obama administration has blasted Netanyahu for building up. Like Netanyahu, Herzog will demand that the Palestinians give up the right of return for the descendants of 1948 refugees.

But the real reason why neither man will sign a peace deal with Abbas has nothing to do with their respective and all-too-similar stands. Rather, it has to do with the unchanged political culture of the Palestinians that has prevented Yasir Arafat and then Abbas from accepting Israeli offers of statehood four times in the last 15 years. Until Palestinian nationalism stops being inextricably connected with a century-long war on Zionism, peace will never happen. And with Gaza still firmly under the control of Hamas, the already slim odds of Abbas feeling strong enough to make peace (assuming that he actually wants to) will remain zero. Moreover, most Israelis think a repeat of the disastrous 2005 withdrawal from Gaza would probably result in another Hamasistan in the West Bank.

Though President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue to labor under the delusion that pressure on Israel provides the magic formula for peace, the opposite is true. It is the Palestinians who need to change, not Israel. And Israelis, who once embraced the hope of Oslo, know it all too well. That’s why, to Netanyahu’s discontent, they are currently more interested in domestic issues rather than war and peace.

The real joke is not on Netanyahu for being a flip-flopper but on those who think either possible prime minister will make peace with a Palestinian leadership that is still unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

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Bibi, Inequality, and the Israeli Economy

The conventional wisdom about Israel’s elections is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose tomorrow because he has not paid sufficient attention to domestic and economic issues while concentrating almost completely on the need to address security, specifically the nuclear threat from Iran. Considering that he has spent the last few days of campaigning speaking even more assertively about refusing to make concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu clearly disagrees with that conclusion. But that’s the point that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes in his pre-election column in which the economist and former Enron advisor (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto never tires of calling him) damns Netanyahu’s handling of the economy which he says has bred more inequality. There is some truth to Krugman’s analysis of what is wrong with Israel. But that answer to a very real inequality crisis is the opposite of what he thinks: more capitalism, not more statist economics. And that is why, despite his lack of emphasis on the issue, Netanyahu has a better grip on the problem than Krugman.

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The conventional wisdom about Israel’s elections is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose tomorrow because he has not paid sufficient attention to domestic and economic issues while concentrating almost completely on the need to address security, specifically the nuclear threat from Iran. Considering that he has spent the last few days of campaigning speaking even more assertively about refusing to make concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu clearly disagrees with that conclusion. But that’s the point that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes in his pre-election column in which the economist and former Enron advisor (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto never tires of calling him) damns Netanyahu’s handling of the economy which he says has bred more inequality. There is some truth to Krugman’s analysis of what is wrong with Israel. But that answer to a very real inequality crisis is the opposite of what he thinks: more capitalism, not more statist economics. And that is why, despite his lack of emphasis on the issue, Netanyahu has a better grip on the problem than Krugman.

Though references to Israel’s economy in the mainstream media often assume it is a mess, Krugman deserves some credit for pointing out that this is simply untrue:

Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. It weathered the financial crisis with minimal damage. Over the longer term, it has grown more rapidly than most other advanced economies, and has developed into a high-technology powerhouse.

But, as Krugman is quick to point out, many Israelis are deeply disturbed by what they see as rising inequality with the people at the top doing well while poverty increases. But the main source of dissatisfaction is that the middle class is increasingly squeezed by the high cost of living, especially with regard to a shortage of affordable housing in the country’s main population centers.

But, as Krugman rightly notes, the sort of rhetoric that we are used to hearing about inequality from American liberals carrying on about the “one percent” who enjoy riches denied others doesn’t really apply to Israel.

At the other end, while the available data — puzzlingly — don’t show an especially large share of income going to the top 1 percent, there is an extreme concentration of wealth and power among a tiny group of people at the top. And I mean tiny. According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market. The nature of that control is convoluted and obscure, working through “pyramids” in which a family controls a firm that in turn controls other firms and so on. Although the Bank of Israel is circumspect in its language, it is clearly worried about the potential this concentration of control creates for self-dealing.

Still, why is Israeli inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme. …

Meanwhile, Israel’s oligarchs owe their position not to innovation and entrepreneurship but to their families’ success in gaining control of businesses that the government privatized in the 1980s — and they arguably retain that position partly by having undue influence over government policy, combined with control of major banks.

Krugman is right about this. When Israel began to privatize its bloated and mismanaged government-run industries after it woke up to the reality that its founders’ belief in socialism was misplaced, what happened bore a resemblance to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and with similar consequences: the creation of a very small class of moguls who benefitted from the windfall.

But the implication here is that somehow this is Netanyahu’s fault. He’s been prime minister a long time, but not that long. Most of the blame for the distribution of goodies to the elites belongs to the previous generation of Israeli leaders, especially Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

But though Krugman complains that Israel doesn’t do enough for the poor, even he has to acknowledge that high poverty rates are mostly the function of the problems of the country’s Arab minority and its ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. Many Arabs remain trapped in a cycle of poverty that is rooted in the conflict over Israel’s existence and cultural problems that are seen in surrounding Arab countries. Many ultra-Orthodox men don’t choose to participate in the work force out of a misplaced belief that it is wrong for them to do so rather than to engage in religious studies.

Yet that doesn’t gainsay the fact that the country has a real problem with a cost of living and the lack of social mobility for the middle class. Angst about this is exacerbated by the country’s long embrace of egalitarian ideals. It is also true, as Krugman says, that there wasn’t much inequality up until the early 1990s. But that was because before that point Israel was operating on a socialist economic model that made it difficult for anyone to make money. If historically capitalism invented an awareness of poverty because before its appearance almost everyone was poor, the same applies to any discussion of income inequality In Israel prior to the reforms that were instituted.

But contrary to Krugman, the cure for this isn’t a retreat from capitalism. Netanyahu was primarily responsible for saving Israel’s economy in the early 2000s when, as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s first government, he spearheaded reforms that helped make it possible for it to become the “Start-Up Nation” that is the envy of the world’s high-tech centers. As the primary advocate in Israel of what Krugman correctly calls “free market economics,” Netanyahu is competing against a generation of fellow politicians who remain mired in the rhetoric of entitlement and big-government solutions. Their talk pleases those who are nostalgic for the Israel that was egalitarian but was so economically backward that visitors were asked to bring jeans and consumer goods with them. That is a path to more problems, not greater and more widespread prosperity.

If the next Israeli government strays from free market policies, the result won’t do much to make it more egalitarian. But it will be poorer. And that is something that even Netanyahu’s critics won’t applaud.

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Will Arab Votes Decide Israel’s Election?

One of the sidebars attracting attention from the international media’s coverage of the Israeli election has been the rise of the Joint List, the coalition of three Israeli Arab parties that is currently sitting at third place in the polls that predict it will hold either 12 or 13 seats in the next Knesset. But while that total is impressive, the assumptions that this represents a genuine breakthrough for Israeli Arab citizens or will aid the efforts of the Jewish left to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu both may be mistaken. While it would be a positive development if Israeli Arabs felt more invested in their government, the impact of a boost in the Arab vote or the chances that their ballots will make the difference between victory and defeat for Netanyahu’s Likud Party are being greatly exaggerated.

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One of the sidebars attracting attention from the international media’s coverage of the Israeli election has been the rise of the Joint List, the coalition of three Israeli Arab parties that is currently sitting at third place in the polls that predict it will hold either 12 or 13 seats in the next Knesset. But while that total is impressive, the assumptions that this represents a genuine breakthrough for Israeli Arab citizens or will aid the efforts of the Jewish left to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu both may be mistaken. While it would be a positive development if Israeli Arabs felt more invested in their government, the impact of a boost in the Arab vote or the chances that their ballots will make the difference between victory and defeat for Netanyahu’s Likud Party are being greatly exaggerated.

First, it’s important to understand what a result of 12 or 13 seats for the Arab coalition will mean. Contrary to some of the excited coverage of this development, it will not be a huge gain for these parties. The Join List is a coalition of three parties: the Communist Hadash Party, the Islamist Raam Party, and the secular Arab nationalist Balad Party. Those three parties received four, four, and three seats respectively in the 2009 and 2013 elections. Forced to unite by a new law that would have doomed any party that received less than the votes needed to gain four seats, the combined effort of the trio will net them one or two extra seats. That’s not inconsiderable but it is by no means a revolution. Unless they get an unexpectedly large showing of Arab voters who traditionally turn out a rate of about 50 percent, as opposed to the approximately 70 percent of Jews, their influence in the Knesset may not be much greater it has been in the past.

Nor will these gains be likely to materially benefit Arab citizens who rightly complain about the lack of resources directed to their municipalities. That’s due in part to the problematic nature of the Israeli political system and partly to the fact that Israeli Arab politicians from these parties are often a big part of the problem on the local level.

Nor will the vastly different political points of view within the Arab coalition help them operate effectively in the Knesset. While all can be counted on to oppose the Zionist agenda of either a Likud or Labor-led coalition and to push for greater support for Arab communities, the vast gap between those who would like to transform the country into an Islamic state and the radical leftists who want a secular socialist government that is neither Jewish nor Arab will prevent them from achieving much once they’re done pushing for votes together.

But more important than these considerations is the question of whether the Joint List will help determine whether Netanyahu or his Labor Party rival Isaac Herzog leads the next government.

Some supporters of the Arab list as well as Netanyahu foes abroad are saying that the 12 or 13 seats they win will be combined with those of Labor’s supporters and potential centrist allies to give Herzog the 61-seat majority he needs to govern. Being in the minority in a parliamentary system is to be marginalized in a way that no member of a minority in the U.S. Congress could experience. But if they were the kingmakers for Herzog, they would be very powerful indeed.

In theory, that is possible. Even if Herzog and his new partner Tzipi Livni were not to include the Joint List as part of their Cabinet, the Arabs could still vote for Herzog from outside the coalition in order to allow him to lead the country at the head of a minority government.

The Wall Street Journal cites the precedent of 1992 when the late Yitzhak Rabin formed a government with the support of five Arab anti-Zionist Knesset members who were not formally part of this government. But Rabin had a majority without the Arab votes, though it was a shaky one since it included the leftist secular Meretz and the Ultra-Orthodox Shas parties. If, as the polls seem to be telling us, Herzog would need the 12 or 13 Arab votes to get to 61, that would be unprecedented and would put him at the mercy of the whims of his three Arab anti-Zionist partners in a way that no one leading a party that dubs itself a Zionist Union would want.

This makes it highly unlikely that Herzog would choose to form such a government or that Israel’s President Ruby Rivlin would even give him the chance to do so after the elections. But that does not mean the possibility won’t have an influence on the outcome.

In the last weekend of campaigning with no more polls to be published, Netanyahu is seeking to influence center-right Israeli voters to stop spreading out their votes among several parties and to support Likud so as to prevent the possibility of a government led by the left. If he is successful it would reverse the outcomes of the last two elections when Israeli voters were sure he would be the prime minister and thus gave Likud fewer votes than anticipated because they felt free to vote for smaller parties with specific agendas they liked.

But in addition to trying to scare them with the prospect of a win for Herzog and Livni, he’s saying that such a government would be dependent on Arab votes for its majority. He made that point in this interview in English with the Voice of Israel in which he labeled a Herzog victory as leading to an anti-Zionist government. Though Labor supporters will dismiss this as mere campaign rhetoric of a desperate candidate, the more the media in Israel and elsewhere hypes the chances of a big win for the Arab parties, the more credible his charge must be considered.

It would be ironic if the supposedly historic win for Israeli Arab voters were to return the man they most dislike to the prime minister’s office. But if enough undecided Israeli voters think Herzog really does need Arab votes to govern, that may be what will happen.

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Did the Iran Speech Sink Netanyahu?

The final opinion polls prior to the Israeli elections are in and the news is pretty bad for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud Party trails the Labor-led Zionist Union by four seats in most of the polls. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Labor leader Isaac Herzog will lead the next government, as the electoral math may still make it easier for Netanyahu to put together a coalition that can command a majority of the Knesset. But if these numbers hold, it represents a body blow to Netanyahu and his party. That will likely lead his legion of American critics to claim that, far from helping him as most assumed it would, his speech to a joint session of Congress last week actually helped sink him. Are they right?

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The final opinion polls prior to the Israeli elections are in and the news is pretty bad for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud Party trails the Labor-led Zionist Union by four seats in most of the polls. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Labor leader Isaac Herzog will lead the next government, as the electoral math may still make it easier for Netanyahu to put together a coalition that can command a majority of the Knesset. But if these numbers hold, it represents a body blow to Netanyahu and his party. That will likely lead his legion of American critics to claim that, far from helping him as most assumed it would, his speech to a joint session of Congress last week actually helped sink him. Are they right?

As I noted yesterday, Netanyahu’s biggest mistake was in calling new elections when he didn’t have to. It was a colossal blunder since Israelis felt they had given him a mandate only two years previously and his belief that he could get an even stronger majority now is seen as a cynical move that is wasting the country’s time and resources.

It’s also true that his emphasis on security issues—the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear threat—didn’t strike the right note with voters who think it’s time the government concentrated more of its energy on solving domestic crises like the shortage and price of housing and the cost of living. But while American liberals and Obama administration supporters who don’t forgive Netanyahu for directly challenging the president on Iran would like to think the speech backfired, they are probably jumping to an incorrect conclusion when they make such a claim.

There’s little evidence that the speech hurt Netanyahu’s chances but also no proof that it helped much. In the aftermath of the speech, Netanyahu’s poll numbers actually went up a couple of seats. But the post-speech bump didn’t last. While few in Israel are happy about the decline in relations with the United States, most of the blame for that is put on President Obama. He remains the least favorite U.S. president among Israelis who rightly consider his tilt toward the Palestinians and pursuit of détente with Iran an indication of his lack of trustworthiness as an ally. Most, including many who will vote against him, agree with Netanyahu about both Iran and Obama’s bad faith. Yet in an election where voters are telling us they are sick and tired of a man seeking a fourth term as prime minister, agreement on Iran or even the Palestinians may not be enough.

After all, though the Obama administration and left-wingers may talk about Herzog as offering a real alternative to Netanyahu on security issues, the difference between the two on the peace process and Iran is mostly a matter or rhetoric and tone. Herzog won’t offer the Palestinians much if anything more than Netanyahu would, although he will phrase it in a way the Americans may like better. And there’s virtually no difference at all on their Iran positions, though the diffident Herzog isn’t likely to stand up to a U.S. president who is openly cheering for his election in the same way as Netanyahu.

Though everyone in the U.S. seemed to assume the speech was about Israeli domestic politics, perhaps we should have taken Netanyahu at his word that he was entirely sincere about wanting to warn the U.S. of impending danger and that it was too important to wait until after the election. His acceptance of the invitation from House Speaker John Boehner may have been a mistake since it allowed the Obama administration to divert the public’s attention from their indefensible appeasement of Iran to a discussion of the prime minister’s alleged breach of protocol. But Netanyahu was right about the issue and there’s no evidence that voters at home thought less of him for speaking out.

But those burying Netanyahu four days before the Israeli public votes may have to eat their words. If, as I speculated yesterday, voters realize that Netanyahu may lose, many choosing to vote for smaller center-right and right wing parties may return to Likud. At this point a tie between Labor and Likud or a small margin between the two parties is as good as a win for Netanyahu given the difficulty Herzog will have in assembling a coalition. If, as is still far from unlikely, Netanyahu does lead the next government, the talk about the speech sinking him will look silly. Even if he doesn’t it is wrong to claim that a loss for Likud is repudiation for his Iran stand. Israelis seem to have had no problem with the speech. But, with good reason, they may think the impossibility of peace with the Palestinians means their government should worry less about Washington and more about the cost of apartments in Tel Aviv.

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Can Netanyahu Bring His Voters Home?

The latest election polls in Israel have brought bad news to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The average of polls shows his Likud Party is now trailing the Zionist Union coalition of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua faction by up to three seats. This downturn in the wake of his speech to Congress last week about the Iranian nuclear threat may show that he has made a couple of major miscalculations about the voting public’s priorities. Yet with several days to go before next Tuesday, his deficit is not large. More to the point, Labor leader Isaac Herzog still faces an uphill battle to create a governing coalition even if his party wins a plurality. The question now is whether, faced with the prospect of Netanyahu losing, enough center-right voters come back to Likud from the small and splinter parties they are currently backing in order for him to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

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The latest election polls in Israel have brought bad news to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The average of polls shows his Likud Party is now trailing the Zionist Union coalition of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua faction by up to three seats. This downturn in the wake of his speech to Congress last week about the Iranian nuclear threat may show that he has made a couple of major miscalculations about the voting public’s priorities. Yet with several days to go before next Tuesday, his deficit is not large. More to the point, Labor leader Isaac Herzog still faces an uphill battle to create a governing coalition even if his party wins a plurality. The question now is whether, faced with the prospect of Netanyahu losing, enough center-right voters come back to Likud from the small and splinter parties they are currently backing in order for him to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

Netanyahu made two major mistakes in this election.

The first was calling new elections in the first place. His coalition with center and secular parties was fractious and in many ways unworkable, but his belief that a new vote would gain him a greater advantage turns out to have been wrong. The public didn’t want the bother and the expense of a new election just two years after reelecting Netanyahu in 2013. Seeking his fourth term as prime minister in what would almost certainly allow him to surpass David Ben-Gurion’s record as the longest serving leader of the Jewish state, Netanyahu also took the voters’ patience for granted. Rather than another vote giving voters a chance to give him the mandate he thought he needed, it actually gave them an opportunity to register their annoyance and boredom with a man running as a major party candidate for prime minister for the fifth time in the last 20 years.

The second major mistake was that by running almost exclusively on war and peace issues, Netanyahu forgot that most Israelis were at this time hoping that their government would concentrate more of its energies on their well being and the economy. Most agree with Netanyahu on the peace talks and the Iran threat. Indeed, despite the very different tone enunciated by Labor, there is precious little daylight between him and Herzog on the big issues. The fact is the majority of the voters rightly assume peace with the Palestinians is impossible for the foreseeable future and that Israel ought to do what it can to stop Iran. That meant there was not as much traction for Netanyahu’s eloquent speech to Congress in terms of its appeal to Israeli voters as he might have hoped.

But while right now it looks as if Netanyahu has passed his expiration date with most Israelis, he still has a decent chance of prevailing. The reason for that is the same factor that diminished his victories in 2009 and 2013.

In both of those elections, voters headed to the polls assuming that Netanyahu would be the victor. They were right, as the coalition math dictated that the left couldn’t form a government and that the parties of the center-right would prevail. That allowed center-right voters to abandon the Likud and vote for splinter parties that most reflected their personal beliefs. In particular, Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home Party benefited from this, but it also allowed voters who were counting on Netanyahu to lead the next government to support other secular or religious parties as well. The result was that Likud wound up with smaller than expected totals even if it didn’t change the fact that Netanyahu would ultimately become prime minister after the coalition haggling was done.

This time Netanyahu seems fated to finish second. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that Herzog will be the next prime minister, a first-place finish would likely mean he would get the first shot at forming a government. That’s why Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals are aimed at scaring voters into thinking Herzog and Livni will really be leading the next government.

Will that shift enough voters from the small parties back to the Likud to give Netanyahu an unexpected win? It’s hard to say. But even minor shifts that still leave Herzog’s group in first place may make it impossible for him to govern. After all, Herzog will likely need both Moshe Kahlon’s center-right populist Kulanu Party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu in order to get the 61 votes he needs for a majority. If both are diminished or the religious parties lose a seat or two in a shift back to Likud, the slim margin for a Labor government may evaporate.

That takes us back to Herzog’s formidable task even if he finishes first. He can’t include the largely anti-Zionist Arab parties in his government. And it will be difficult for the religious parties to serve with the far-left Meretz or the secular Yesh Atid. And it’s not clear that anyone on the left will sit in a Cabinet with Lieberman. The current polls give Herzog a path to victory, but any coalescing behind the two largest parties will only help Netanyahu and Likud. As Michel Gurfinkiel wrote yesterday here in his analysis of Israel’s atomized political system, a return to an era in which Labor and Likud dominated the system as its two major parties would serve Netanyahu’s interests next week.

Do voters care enough about keeping the prickly and generally disliked Netanyahu in office to return to the Likud? More to the point, does a Labor Party led by the unthreatening-looking Herzog at a time when no one thinks peace talks have a chance really scare centrists or right-wingers into holding their noses and giving Netanyahu a fourth term? The answer to that question will determine the outcome.

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Why Isaac Herzog Is Channeling Menachem Begin–and the Mishnaic Sages Too

There is a famous Talmudic story about the Mishnaic sage Elazar ben Azariah, who was chosen by his peers to lead the rabbinate. He fulfilled all the criteria but he was only 18, and he looked it. The Talmud tells us God then made part of Elazar’s beard turn white, giving him the gravitas he needed to head the academy. Israel’s babyfaced Isaac Herzog, the young leader of a Labor Party on the cusp of winning Israel’s next national elections, is in need of such gravitas. But he’s not asking for a miracle; Photoshop will do. Herzog’s campaign has reportedly done something that might surprise consumers of our airbrushed pop culture: digitally altered his photo to make him look older–and, presumably, wiser.

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There is a famous Talmudic story about the Mishnaic sage Elazar ben Azariah, who was chosen by his peers to lead the rabbinate. He fulfilled all the criteria but he was only 18, and he looked it. The Talmud tells us God then made part of Elazar’s beard turn white, giving him the gravitas he needed to head the academy. Israel’s babyfaced Isaac Herzog, the young leader of a Labor Party on the cusp of winning Israel’s next national elections, is in need of such gravitas. But he’s not asking for a miracle; Photoshop will do. Herzog’s campaign has reportedly done something that might surprise consumers of our airbrushed pop culture: digitally altered his photo to make him look older–and, presumably, wiser.

As Tal Schneider and Noga Tarnopolsky note, “According to the business tabloid The Marker, Yitzhak Herzog’s enviable baby face has caused a few rumpled foreheads, and the Labor campaign has actually used a Photoshop-like service to add the wrinkles of age and gravitas to its candidate’s unblemished face.” And indeed if you follow the link to The Marker you can see the difference.

The page is in Hebrew but it’s self-explanatory (and easily translatable). The Marker actually set up a useful tool in which they’ve layered one official campaign picture of each of the major candidates over a regular photo, and allowed the user to drag an icon over each photo to reveal the one underneath, for easy comparison. Everybody’s “official” picture looks as close to flawless as the camera can believably make them–except for Herzog. His digitally enhanced photo shows his wrinkles significantly more prominently, especially around his eyes. And his hair looks grayer.

The polls provide some explanation. While the Labor-led Zionist Union polls a few seats better than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, when respondents are asked who they’d prefer as prime minister, Netanyahu wins by a significant margin (though the gap has closed somewhat). Herzog is trying to look more experienced, more distinguished, and more battle tested.

And aside from the understandable logic of it, there’s precedent too. Ronald Reagan’s great line in his debate with Walter Mondale that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” may have been something of a joke, but in Israel such youth and inexperience can indeed be a liability.

Israel probably first learned this in earnest in its momentous Knesset election in 1977, when a Likud-led bloc was finally able to defeat the left-Labor coalition for the first time.

The Likud side was led at that time by Menachem Begin. The leftist Alignment was led by Yitzhak Rabin until a scandal over an illegal bank account spurred his resignation from the post. He was replaced by Shimon Peres. Begin was in his mid-60s and always looked at least his age. Peres was a decade younger. A few months before the election, Begin suffered a heart attack, was hospitalized, and lost weight. He was weaker than usual. To make matters worse, he had agreed to a televised debate before Peres had taken over leadership of the left coalition. The debate was scheduled for just days before the vote.

In his biography of Begin (released in English in 2012) Avi Shilon describes how the Likud tried to learn from Nixon’s debate with JFK:

Alex Ansky coached Begin for many hours in an effort to improve his physical appearance. In order to make him look more tanned, he wore, for the first time in his life, a pale blue shirt. “It was hard to get him one like that, as all his shirts were white,” Aliza said. The debate, hosted by journalist Yishayahu (Shaike) Ben Porat, lasted over forty minutes. … The two candidates were very excited, but Begin was clearly more so. When the debate first started, Begin’s gaze constantly searched for the cameras. Furthermore, despite his blue shirt, he looked pale and weak and sweated just as profusely as Nixon had done in his debate.

That’s when the two candidates learned an important lesson about the Israeli public:

What Americans perceived as a disadvantage was taken by the Israeli viewers as an advantage. The sweaty and excited Begin triggered sympathy. His appearance—which was ill-suited to the medium—actually made him seem to be a responsible and mature Jew who did not sleep at night because of his concerns for Israel. When the debate ended and the cameras were turned off, Begin could no longer resist some humor and remarked while Peres was removing his makeup, “Oh, look how beautiful he is.” His associates burst into laughter.

Begin was a powerful speaker–peerless when he was at his best. And he looked like the underground soldier, hounded by his enemies and marginalized by the Jewish establishment, that he had been for so long. He had been fighting all his life for the Jewish state, and it showed.

With his victory, he once again changed the course of Israeli history. But he also proved something great about his fellow Jews: democracy to them was not a beauty pageant. Herzog, the son of the late Chaim Herzog, an IDF general and former president of Israel (at the tail end of Begin’s premiership, in fact), knows this too. And he would like the Israeli electorate not to hold his (relative) youth and inexperience against him.

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The Half-Full Cup of Jewish-Arab Relations

If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

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If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

The first poll, published last month, unsurprisingly shows that 77 percent of Israeli Jews and 68 percent of Israeli Arabs also believe last summer’s events worsened Jewish-Arab relations, and that negative stereotypes still abound. What it also shows, however, is that neither side considers this situation irreversible, and both are seriously interested in changing it.

For instance, a whopping 87 percent of Arab respondents said they still believe Jewish-Arab coexistence is possible. Even more astonishingly, the proportion of Arabs who said they identify with the Israeli flag shot up to 55 percent, from 37 percent last year, while the proportion that identifies with the Palestinian flag plunged from 34 percent to 8 percent.

Among Jews, the proportion who said they’d like to know the Arab population better shot up to 52 percent, from 38 percent last year. And this isn’t just talk: As Haaretz reported last month, both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites are studying the other’s language in record numbers. New classes are filling “almost as fast as the courses can open”; waiting lists are long; and both sides say they could easily fill many more classes were it not for the shortage of qualified teachers.

The other two polls–conducted independently by Tel Aviv University and the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and released this week–show that Arab turnout in next week’s election is expected to hit a 16-year high. This is noteworthy, because the last time Jewish-Arab relations nosedived, following the Arab riots of October 2000, Arabs responded with a symbolic bill of divorce: boycotting the 2001 election. This time, they’re responding by turning out to vote in record numbers. As Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, told the Times of Israel, “Arabs are now taking their citizenship more seriously than any time in the past.”

Moreover, many of them now want to use this citizenship not to push a separatist Palestinian identity, but to improve Arab integration. According to the TAU poll, 44 percent of Arab respondents think their Knesset members’ top priority “should be dealing with the ailments of Arab society: unemployment, violence, women’s status, education and health.” Another 28 percent said the most important issue was “government treatment of the Arab population,” while only 19 percent prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Haaretz poll last month similarly found that 70 percent of Israeli Arabs want their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems rather than the Palestinian problem.

In part, as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month, this change in Arab attitudes stems from the fact that successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to reduce anti-Arab discrimination and increase Arab integration, and though the job is far from done, the progress has been noteworthy. But another significant factor, as Abu Ras correctly noted, has been the events of the Arab Spring, which gave Israeli Arabs a new appreciation of Israeli democracy.

“Despite the discrimination that exists in Israel, which should be combated, people now tend to see the cup as half full,” he told the Times of Israel. “Arab political discourse used to emphasize the cup as half empty, but no longer.”

This clearly bodes well for Israel’s future. Yet if even Israeli Arabs now see the cup as half full rather than half empty, isn’t it time for the rest of the world to do the same?

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How to Understand the Israeli Elections: The Likud Civil War

It’s no surprise that a narrative developed in the U.S. media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress was all or mostly an election stunt. The Western press is a long way from understanding Israeli politics. But as news organizations still cast next week’s Israeli election in the shadow of The Speech, it’s become clear their readers are missing the real story of the polls: they’re defined by a Likud civil war.

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It’s no surprise that a narrative developed in the U.S. media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress was all or mostly an election stunt. The Western press is a long way from understanding Israeli politics. But as news organizations still cast next week’s Israeli election in the shadow of The Speech, it’s become clear their readers are missing the real story of the polls: they’re defined by a Likud civil war.

On paper, despite the fragmentation of Israeli party politics, it’s still easy to miss any subplot when the main story has Likud and Labor–the traditional pillars of Israeli right and left–back in a dead heat. But it turns out the Likud vs. Labor rivalry is actually the subplot here. The main theme of the elections has to do with why Labor’s Isaac Herzog is on the cusp of possibly becoming prime minister. There are several politicians instrumental to Herzog’s chances. And they’re all originally Likudniks.

Let’s look at the two scenarios by which Herzog would become prime minister. The first is the old-fashioned way, by winning the election and putting together a governing coalition of 61 or more seats. Just taking the latest polls, Herzog would need to overcome mutual resistance from Yair Lapid and Orthodox parties to sit in a coalition together. But it’s certainly possible, maybe even likely, that they could. Lapid isn’t interested in making Bibi prime minister, so he’s a natural ally of Herzog here.

All of which makes the “kingmaker” in this scenario Moshe Kahlon, who left the Likud to form his own party instead of challenging Netanyahu within Likud. He has enough votes to make or break a coalition of either side. If Herzog is able to piece together a coalition, it’ll be because the (ex-)Likudnik Kahlon made it so.

Additionally, in such a scenario Herzog would need one more ex-Likudnik: the once and possibly future kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman. Herzog’s coalition would in all probability require both Lieberman and Kahlon to get him above the threshold. It would not be a particularly stable coalition (Labor and Tzipi Livni presiding over a coalition that needs rightists to survive, including one who was recently emitting hot air about beheading Arab enemies, would be interesting to say the least). But it could at least form a government.

And there’s the second possibility for Herzog to become prime minister: a unity government. This would be another Israeli throwback, and in the past unity governments have been far more productive than they might seem from the outside. This is in part because they have so many seats that none of the fringe parties represent a threat to the stability of the coalition. If one or two minor parties bolted the government, the rest of the coalition would barely notice.

So how would Israel get a unity government? The most likely scenario to produce such a coalition would be if the election is so close, and so splintered, that either no clear voter favorite emerges or that no truly stable coalition seems possible otherwise. In such a case, the Israeli president, who chooses which party to invite to form a coalition, would ask for a unity government. In a close election, the president’s mostly ceremonial role finds its one true lever of power. And the current president is Ruby Rivlin, a member of the Likud.

Rivlin is a Likudnik in the classic mold, but he does not get along with Netanyahu, and has taken to criticizing Bibi publicly, an uncommon but not unprecedented practice for the president. Rivlin is reportedly leaning toward a unity government, which is not at all surprising. In a unity government, it’s quite likely that the person to get the nod as prime minister will be the head of the party with the most votes. Another option is to have a rotating premiership. Either way, Rivlin, the Likudnik, would place Herzog in the Prime Minister’s Office.

There’s one more “kingmaker,” so to speak, involved. Herzog has teamed up with Livni to form the Zionist Union. Livni may not be worth that many seats, but even a few will likely make the difference in this election. Livni is also a former Likudnik, though she did not leave over a feud with Bibi; she followed Ariel Sharon to Kadima. And she has built her current political identity around the peace process. So she’s far from the Likud of Rivlin, Kahlon, or Lieberman. But her political background is on the right, and she spent almost as much time in Likud as she did in Kadima, which was of course led by a faction of Likudniks.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been in or near the leadership of the Likud long enough to have plenty of rivals. Some of the bridges he’s burned have been repairable (Lieberman has come and gone from Likud with some regularity), some not. But his non-Likud political rivals on the right, such as Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, are ex-Likudniks. And his electoral rivals who might give the premiership to Herzog are current or former Likudniks. And Herzog would only have enough votes to get there because he’s allied with a former Likudnik.

The splintering of the Likud on Bibi’s watch is catching up to him. In his time in the leadership, Likud has groomed the next generation of dynamic rightist politicians. And they’re now the primary threat to his reelection.

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The Problem With Anti-Bibi Derangement Syndrome

Last night opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to show that the Likud Party leader is out of touch and on his way to defeat in the March 17 election. But despite massive funding from foreign backers and an all-out effort by the coalition of left-wing parties and promotion by a sympathetic media, the effort seems to have flopped. Only an estimated 35-40,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a venue where the left has, in the past, produced mobs of hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their clout. Despite the vitriol poured out upon the prime minister, he appears to be holding his own in the polls with his party and those more likely to join a coalition led by him still holding a large advantage over his chief rivals. That reality runs counter to most of what we are hearing and seeing in the U.S. media about Netanyahu, who, despite the cheers he got for his address to Congress last week, has been smeared as a warmonger or worse by his critics. But at this point, it’s worth the effort to unpack some of the charges being made against him both by those who have succumbed to Netanyahu derangement syndrome and those affecting a more nuanced view of him.

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Last night opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to show that the Likud Party leader is out of touch and on his way to defeat in the March 17 election. But despite massive funding from foreign backers and an all-out effort by the coalition of left-wing parties and promotion by a sympathetic media, the effort seems to have flopped. Only an estimated 35-40,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a venue where the left has, in the past, produced mobs of hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their clout. Despite the vitriol poured out upon the prime minister, he appears to be holding his own in the polls with his party and those more likely to join a coalition led by him still holding a large advantage over his chief rivals. That reality runs counter to most of what we are hearing and seeing in the U.S. media about Netanyahu, who, despite the cheers he got for his address to Congress last week, has been smeared as a warmonger or worse by his critics. But at this point, it’s worth the effort to unpack some of the charges being made against him both by those who have succumbed to Netanyahu derangement syndrome and those affecting a more nuanced view of him.

The Tel Aviv rally seemed to reflect the worst excesses of Israeli politics, which can sometimes make even the bitterest U.S. battles seem like bean ball in comparison. The loudest voice being heard against Netanyahu these days is not so much the man who wishes to replace him as prime minister, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, as it is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Dagan has spent the past few years denouncing Netanyahu from every possible platform, calling him a danger to Israel for not making peace with the Palestinians and for taking too strong a stand against the Iranian nuclear threat.

Dagan’s security credentials give him the standing to speak in a way that either Israeli or American pundits don’t possess. But the over-the-top nature of his attacks—the Times of Israel noted that he was so overcome by his passion against his former boss that he was close to tears when speaking last night—makes it hard to take him too seriously. It’s not a secret that while there are real differences between the two men, his animus stems in part from the decision by Netanyahu and former defense minister Ehud Barak not to extend Dagan’s term in office. Moreover, the notion that it is somehow Netanyahu’s fault that the Palestinians have continued to refuse to make peace or that they engage in terrorist attacks on Israel makes his arguments seem less worthy of being taken too seriously. The same applies to his efforts to put the onus on Netanyahu for America’s decision to appease Iran rather than continue its isolation.

The same factor undermines the arguments of a more measured voice. Writing in Politico today is author and journalist Ari Shavit, a favorite of the American media after the publication of his misleading book My Promised Land that has been effectively debunked by Martin Kramer.

Unlike Dagan who speaks of Netanyahu as if he were the spawn of the devil, Shavit declares the prime minister to be “a serious statesman, with an extraordinary comprehension and uncanny foresight.” He even thinks he’s right about the danger from Iran and gives him credit for forcing the U.S. and its allies for undertaking the task of trying to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Without him, the sanctions and the negotiations might never have happened.

But Shavit faults Netanyahu for having a “Churchill complex.” That’s not because he’s wrong, as Dagan seems to imply at times, about Iran being an existential threat to Israel, but because he failed to do what Churchill accomplished: rally the U.S. to join a coalition to avert the danger. Instead of being the successful Churchill of the 1940s, Shavit says, he is merely the Churchill of the 1930s, the man in the wilderness playing the prophet of doom who will be vindicated by later events.

There is some truth to this. Netanyahu’s strong arguments and even more brilliant rhetoric have not been enough to rally the U.S. government to his side. Instead of joining the fight against Iran, President Obama seeks détente with the Islamist regime and appears willing to acquiesce not only to it becoming a threshold nuclear power but one that will be capable of building a weapon once the “sunset” clauses in the deal the Americans have offered kicks in. This is very bad news indeed and, according to Shavit, it is Netanyahu’s fault. If he’s right, then Netanyahu bears a heavy responsibility for what will follow.

But, like much of what Shavit has written about the Palestinians where he likewise acknowledges their unwillingness to make peace but still blames it all on Netanyahu, this analysis is out of focus.

While Netanyahu may be held partly responsible for his bad relationship with President Obama (as in all breakups, it takes two to tango), if Israel is isolated on Iran it is not due to the prime minister’s prickly personality or his supposed hard line on the Palestinians, as Shavit argues. As we now know, Netanyahu was as willing to make compromises to achieve peace as were his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who were turned down flat by the Palestinians three times. They gave a fourth no to Netanyahu during the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry.

But nothing Netanyahu did or didn’t do influenced President Obama’s zeal for a deal with Iran. U.S. policy toward Iran during the past six years has been entirely the brainchild of the president, who is obsessed with the notion of engagement and his delusions about Iran “getting right with the world” rather than its pursuit of its nuclear dreams and regional hegemony. To deny Obama credit for this betrayal of his campaign promises and the security of American allies is to inflate Netanyahu’s importance in a way reminiscent of anti-Israel conspiracy theorists.

Shavit believes Netanyahu is right about Iran but wrong because he couldn’t persuade a president that never had any interest in anything but appeasement of the Islamist regime. That sort of analysis is rooted in a form of the same Netanyahu derangement syndrome that sends Dagan and other Israeli critics of the current government over the chasm into pointless invective.

Netanyahu has made his share of blunders and is no more infallible than his role model Churchill was. He may not be another Churchill despite the desire of both his fans and his foes to judge him solely by the standards set by that truly great man. Yet his problem here is not an inability to work Churchill’s magic but, as the great Ruth Wisse pointed out in the Weekly Standard, the fact that his U.S. partner was no Franklin Roosevelt. It is that factor that has created the current situation where Netanyahu’s warnings are more a matter of setting the record straight for history rather than an effective way to influence his American ally. That’s why history will be kinder to Netanyahu than his contemporary critics and very harsh indeed to the man who couldn’t play FDR to the Israeli’s Churchill.

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