Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli elections

Another Unforced Error for Netanyahu

What was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu thinking when he rejected an invitation from Senate Democrats to speak to a private meeting of their caucus? Netanyahu’s rationale is that he only wants to speak to bipartisan groups rather than to meet with either Democrats or Republicans and thereby be drawn into America’s partisan disputes. But by publicly rejecting what seems like an olive branch from Democrats, he is doing just the opposite. Rather than uphold the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition in Washington, the prime minister’s refusal is being interpreted as another snub to President Obama’s party after his decision to accept an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting with the White House. Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any worse for Netanyahu—at least as far as the way it is perceived in the United States—the Israeli leader dug himself and his country a slightly deeper hole in yet another unforced error.

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What was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu thinking when he rejected an invitation from Senate Democrats to speak to a private meeting of their caucus? Netanyahu’s rationale is that he only wants to speak to bipartisan groups rather than to meet with either Democrats or Republicans and thereby be drawn into America’s partisan disputes. But by publicly rejecting what seems like an olive branch from Democrats, he is doing just the opposite. Rather than uphold the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition in Washington, the prime minister’s refusal is being interpreted as another snub to President Obama’s party after his decision to accept an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting with the White House. Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any worse for Netanyahu—at least as far as the way it is perceived in the United States—the Israeli leader dug himself and his country a slightly deeper hole in yet another unforced error.

As his official response indicates, it is likely that the prime minister’s office saw the invitation as a trap rather than an opportunity to counter the White House spin of his speech as the Israeli government taking sides with Republicans against the White House on the question of Iran sanctions. Since he rightly believes that speaking to Congress about the dangers from Iran’s nuclear program and the need for increased sanctions is an issue that transcends partisan loyalties, Netanyahu may have thought that accepting the invite from the Democrats would have been a tacit admission that he had erred in cooking up the speech with Boehner.

He may have been right about that. But, once again, the prime minister and his advisors—people who have a better grasp of Washington culture than most Israelis—have gotten so deep into the issue that they’ve lost sight of political reality. Rightly or wrongly, the speech to Congress is widely seen as a Netanyahu attack on Obama that is resented even by Democrats who agree with the prime minister and disagree with the president on Iran sanctions and the direction of the negotiations with Tehran. Rather than viewing the invitation from the Senate Democrats negatively, he should have taken it as an opportunity to prove that he had no interest in playing one party against another. If there were a problem with the perception of him meeting with one group of senators—something that is far from unprecedented—it wouldn’t have been too hard to persuade Republicans to meet with him too.

Instead, by stubbornly sticking to his narrative about the speech to Congress and ignoring the need to acknowledge that the story has gotten away from him, Netanyahu has done more damage to his reputation and, once again, assisted the administration’s efforts to brand him as a disruptive force within the alliance. Just at the moment when it seemed the discussion was shifting from one about the prime minister’s chutzpah to the latest dangerous round of concessions being offered to Iran by the president, we get another news cycle in which the focus is on Netanyahu’s incompetent management of relations with people who should be his allies in Congress.

Acknowledging this latest blunder doesn’t mean that Netanyahu’s position on Iran isn’t correct. The administration’s reported offer of a ten-year freeze with Tehran that would grant Western approval not only for Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but its eventual acquisition of a weapon is a betrayal of the president’s 2008 and 2012 campaign pledges on the issue. Though some were accusing Israel of making up stories about the talks in order to discredit the diplomatic process, it now appears that the worst fears about Obama’s push for détente with Iran are coming true. Rather than stopping Iran, the administration’s priority is making common cause with it to the detriment of the security of both America’s moderate Arab allies and the Jewish state.

This is the moment when the bipartisan pro-Israel community in this country should be uniting behind a push for more sanctions on Iran and opposition to appeasement of its nuclear ambitions. But by walking right into Obama’s trap, Netanyahu has reduced the chances of passing sanctions by a veto-proof majority. And by doubling down on this by refusing to meet with Senate Democrats, he has ensured that his speech will continue to be interpreted through a partisan lens rather than as a necessary cry of alarm that should be taken up by both parties.

It’s possible that, as I wrote yesterday, the duel with the White House may actually be helping Netanyahu in his reelection fight at home since it puts Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog in the unenviable position of being the Israeli ally of a president that is rightly viewed with suspicion by most voters in the Jewish state. But you don’t have to sympathize with either Obama or Herzog to understand that Netanyahu’s blunders are deepening the divide between Republicans and Democrats on Israel just at the moment when he should be redoubling his efforts to bridge them.

In the first six years of this administration, Netanyahu was roundly abused in the American press for his arguments with the president. But on the whole he conducted himself with dignity and strength and was rarely outmaneuvered. But in the last two months, Netanyahu has not been able to get out of his own way when it comes to managing relations with Congress or the White House. It may be too late for him to step back from the speech. But it isn’t too late to try and rectify the harm he is doing by rethinking his rejection of the Democrats’ invitation.

I don’t know exactly who is advising him to make these unforced errors but whoever it is, they should be fired or ignored in the future. Whether or not Netanyahu is reelected next month, the next prime minister of Israel is going to need both Republicans and Democrats in the years to come to maintain the alliance and to manage the growing threat from Iran that Obama is encouraging rather than stopping. Much to my surprise and others who thought him a brilliant political operator, Netanyahu seems to have forgotten that.

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Obama’s Uncomfortable Israeli Ally

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog stated the obvious when he noted today that both the Israeli government and its opposition agreed on the nuclear threat from Iran. But as much as he shares Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conviction that Israel cannot tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon, he wants no part of a joint trip to Washington with his rival. Herzog rejected the invitation from the Likud to join the prime minister when he goes to Congress in early March. But while there are good reasons for both Israelis and American supporters of the Jewish state to question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to address a joint session of Congress, Herzog’s unwillingness to play along with Netanyahu’s gambit demonstrates that a move that has actually worsened the chances of Congress passing more sanctions may be helping the prime minister politically at home more than it is hurting him. By forcing Herzog to declare himself ready to trust the Obama administration to do the right thing on Iran—just at a time when it appears to be making even more concessions that endanger the security of the West and Israel—Netanyahu could be ensuring his reelection next month.

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Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog stated the obvious when he noted today that both the Israeli government and its opposition agreed on the nuclear threat from Iran. But as much as he shares Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conviction that Israel cannot tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon, he wants no part of a joint trip to Washington with his rival. Herzog rejected the invitation from the Likud to join the prime minister when he goes to Congress in early March. But while there are good reasons for both Israelis and American supporters of the Jewish state to question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to address a joint session of Congress, Herzog’s unwillingness to play along with Netanyahu’s gambit demonstrates that a move that has actually worsened the chances of Congress passing more sanctions may be helping the prime minister politically at home more than it is hurting him. By forcing Herzog to declare himself ready to trust the Obama administration to do the right thing on Iran—just at a time when it appears to be making even more concessions that endanger the security of the West and Israel—Netanyahu could be ensuring his reelection next month.

With only three weeks to go before Israeli voters head to the polls, the race between Netanyahu’s Likud and the Zionist Union bloc led by Herzog is still too close to call in terms of which party will get the most Knesset seats. But the coalition math in which either party must negotiate deals with several smaller parties in order to get to a 61-seat majority and the right to govern still favors Netanyahu. In order to become the next prime minister, Herzog is going to have to finish first by a healthy margin and then put together a tenuous coalition including the religious and centrist parties but excluding the anti-Zionist Arabs.

Pulling off such a feat is possible but not likely. And the more Netanyahu is able to position himself as the sole figure standing up to American pressure on the Palestinians and fighting against appeasement of Iran, the worse Herzog’s chances look. Thus, it might have made sense to make some gesture of national unity that would have enabled him to steal at least some of Netanyahu’s thunder in Washington. But Herzog can’t do it. Why? Because the rationale underlying his candidacy is a critique of the way Netanyahu has messed up the alliance with the United States.

Herzog rightly understood that the invitation to join Netanyahu was a political stunt and that the Likud was hoping he would say no. The opposition leader isn’t wrong to view the speech as now having a lot more to do with Israeli domestic politics than an effective effort to stop an administration determined to cut a deal with Iran on any terms, even if its provisions virtually concede its status as a threshold nuclear power and will eventually allow the regime to build a weapon with impunity. But the problem for Herzog is not in diagnosing the futility of Netanyahu’s speech or the fact that it has helped President Obama pick off wavering Democrats and therefore prevent the creation of a veto-proof majority for increased sanctions on Iran. Rather, it is in being put in the position of being Obama’s man in Jerusalem just at a time when the president seems to be betraying Israel’s interests in the Iran talks rather than just engaging in another pointless spat with Netanyahu.

There’s no question that the White House will be holding its breath on March 17 and the days following the Israeli vote hoping that somehow Herzog and his ally Tzipi Livni can prevail. Herzog seems to appreciate this and is saying nothing to indicate that he will make trouble for Obama on Iran or any other issue.

But Herzog has to be worried about two things happening that would make Netanyahu’s congressional speech more than a campaign speech.

One is the very real possibility that the U.S. will cut a deal with Iran in the next couple of weeks that will give the Islamist regime the right to hold onto to its nuclear toys and give it a chance—whether by a breakout or waiting out a freeze period such as the one suggested by the U.S. this week—that will give it a nuclear weapon. If the president who is already deeply unpopular in Israel agrees to a deal that is widely seen as undermining Israeli security, Herzog will be hard-put to continue to claim that he can defend Israel’s interests more effectively than Netanyahu by warming up the relationship with Obama. At that point, he will be forced into a stance that will be a faint echo of Netanyahu’s full-throated opposition to an Iran deal and irrelevance.

But even if a deal isn’t struck before the speech or the election, Herzog still has to be concerned about the administration’s push for Iran détente becoming more overt. Indeed, the closer we get to a deal, whether or not it is signed, the steady stream of U.S. concessions to the Islamist regime makes Herzog’s position as Obama’s favorite in the elections more untenable than ever. Though Obama would like to help Herzog, the irony is that the harder he tries to achieve his main second-term foreign-policy goal—an entente with Iran—the worse Herzog’s chances may be. While Herzog is right to say that, if elected, he would, at least initially, be able to warm up relations with Obama, being cozy with someone who is getting cozy with Iran is a very uncomfortable place to be for a man who wants to be elected prime minister of Israel.

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Bibi’s Kitchengate and Israel’s Shifting Standards

Though foreign-policy pundits and Israel watchers have been obsessing over the wisdom of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress on Iran sanctions, it’s possible that his electoral fate will be decided by something far more mundane. The State Comptroller’s scathing report about what is being represented as lavish expenditures at the prime minister’s residence was big news in Israel. His critics and political foes made a meal of the report and cited it as proof that Netanyahu had outlasted his welcome in office after six years (and nine overall) as the country’s leader. But though the timing couldn’t be worse for the Likud and it may have cost Netanyahu’s party a couple of seats in the most recent election polls, some canny observers think it won’t decide things. They’re right, and not just because the election ought to be decided on weightier issues. Unlike Americans who may see headlines about corruption and think the worst about the prime minister, most Israelis may understand the context and judge the situation accordingly.

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Though foreign-policy pundits and Israel watchers have been obsessing over the wisdom of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress on Iran sanctions, it’s possible that his electoral fate will be decided by something far more mundane. The State Comptroller’s scathing report about what is being represented as lavish expenditures at the prime minister’s residence was big news in Israel. His critics and political foes made a meal of the report and cited it as proof that Netanyahu had outlasted his welcome in office after six years (and nine overall) as the country’s leader. But though the timing couldn’t be worse for the Likud and it may have cost Netanyahu’s party a couple of seats in the most recent election polls, some canny observers think it won’t decide things. They’re right, and not just because the election ought to be decided on weightier issues. Unlike Americans who may see headlines about corruption and think the worst about the prime minister, most Israelis may understand the context and judge the situation accordingly.

As Haviv Rettig Gur noted in the Times of Israel, had Netanyahu made the sort of concessions to the Palestinians that the left believes in, newspapers like Haaretz wouldn’t be treating the question of how many cigars or how much ice cream are consumed at chez Netanyahu at the public’s expense. As Gur also noted, the alternative to the PM in the election, Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, is also a wealthy man and is keeping conspicuously quiet about the affair. The story has resonance because the public is sick of Netanyahu after so many years in power. His wife Sara has been subjected to a lot of criticism too as tales told by disgruntled former employees made her seem like a cross between Joan Crawford and Lady Macbeth.

But lest we jump to conclusions about supposed corruption, let’s understand that what Netanyahu stands accused of doing are things that any American president would take for granted. After all, Netanyahu was roundly criticized for seeking to have a bed installed on an official plane used to take him on foreign trips. When you realize that Air Force One is a luxury hotel when compared to the vehicles that take Israel’s leader abroad, it’s easy to realize that Netanyahu is being judged by a standard that most Western leaders would think absurd. Indeed, not even President Obama’s most virulent critics think there’s anything amiss about how much food is being consumed at the White House, a place where we expect our commanders in chief to live comfortably.

Of course, many Israelis are old enough to remember their first generation of leaders who lived simply, both in and out of office. Both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were ascetics who eschewed grandeur and the trappings of their positions. Compared to men who retired to a shack in the desert and a small Jerusalem apartment, Netanyahu is a high roller. But his spending isn’t any more or less offensive that that of his recent predecessors such as Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak. Compared to the man that he succeeded as prime minister—Ehud Olmert—Netanyahu is a veritable Abe Lincoln. Olmert, a man who was lionized and feted by American Jewish liberals up until the moment he was convicted on corruption charges, wasn’t just a lavish spender; he used his office for corrupt purposes, something that no one is accusing Netanyahu of doing.

Being more honest than Olmert or just as much of a spender as Barak, Rabin, or Peres is no great recommendation. With the plight of the country’s middle class and the cost of living a major campaign issue, having a prime minister who expects the taxpayers to pay for his sushi doesn’t look good. But few in Israel believe Herzog and his political ally, Tzipi Livni, would be any more circumspect about spending.

More importantly, Netanyahu still heads into the election looking like the most authoritative leader on war and peace issues. Even the polls that show the Likud trailing its Labor rival by a seat or two also tell us that Netanyahu is the first choice for prime minister and that most voters expect the center and right-wing parties to form the next government. In a Middle East torn by Islamist strife, Israelis still understand that their government’s primary obligation is to keep them safe. With Iran not only trying to assemble a nuclear threat but make a two-front war possible with its Hezbollah and Hamas allies, Sara Netanyahu’s treatment of the staff and the price of ice cream don’t look like that big a deal. That doesn’t mean that Israelis wouldn’t prefer to be led by another Ben-Gurion or Begin, but it’s doubtful that they’ll throw out Netanyahu on this basis.

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How Different Would Herzog Be From Bibi?

With a little more than a month to go before Israel’s Knesset election, there isn’t much doubt that the White House is hoping and praying that Israeli voters reject Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bid for a third consecutive term in office. With Obama using Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress on Iran sanctions only weeks before the vote and the prime minister speaking of his “duty” to inform the world about the mistaken policy being pursued by the administration, tensions between the two governments are at fever pitch. While the impact of Netanyahu’s speech on Israeli voters is a matter of speculation, he remains favored to win. But what will really change if Obama gets his wish and, instead, the Labor Party’s Isaac Herzog emerges from what is likely to be a protracted period of negotiations as Israel’s next prime minister? The answer is that while the atmospherics between Washington and Jerusalem will undoubtedly be a lot better, the substance of the arguments between the two governments won’t change much. Nor will, despite the assumptions on the part of Netanyahu’s many critics, Israel be any closer to peace under Herzog than it is under the incumbent.

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With a little more than a month to go before Israel’s Knesset election, there isn’t much doubt that the White House is hoping and praying that Israeli voters reject Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bid for a third consecutive term in office. With Obama using Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress on Iran sanctions only weeks before the vote and the prime minister speaking of his “duty” to inform the world about the mistaken policy being pursued by the administration, tensions between the two governments are at fever pitch. While the impact of Netanyahu’s speech on Israeli voters is a matter of speculation, he remains favored to win. But what will really change if Obama gets his wish and, instead, the Labor Party’s Isaac Herzog emerges from what is likely to be a protracted period of negotiations as Israel’s next prime minister? The answer is that while the atmospherics between Washington and Jerusalem will undoubtedly be a lot better, the substance of the arguments between the two governments won’t change much. Nor will, despite the assumptions on the part of Netanyahu’s many critics, Israel be any closer to peace under Herzog than it is under the incumbent.

To listen to Herzog and his new partner Tzipi Livni, who merged her defunct Hatnua Party with Labor to form what they call the Zionist Camp, the differences will be significant. Herzog has spoken of his commitment to the peace process. It’s likely that he would encourage a renewal of the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry that collapsed last year after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas signed a unity pact with Hamas.

But would the terms he is willing to offer Abbas differ from those that the Palestinians have already rejected?

Herzog has danced around the question of a divided Jerusalem. Though he is saying now that he wants to keep the city united, in the past he has endorsed the Geneva Initiative’s plans for a division. That waffling is in stark contrast to Netanyahu’s adamant refusal to partition Israel’s capital. But in practice, Herzog might still find himself locked in disputes with the Obama administration on Jerusalem. That’s because Obama considers the 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods built in parts of the city that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 to be little different than the most hilltop encampments in the West Bank where Jews are living. To the administration, both are “settlements” and obstacles to peace. Any Herzog-Livni government would be a coalition with centrist parties, including relative hardliners like Avigdor Lieberman, and not Labor’s allies to the left or the Arab parties. It is inconceivable that any such government would agree, as the president almost certainly will demand, for a building freeze in Jerusalem.

Herzog is also deeply committed to a two-state solution, something that is music to Obama’s ears and will be the selling point used by Kerry when he tries to entice Abbas back to the negotiating table should Labor win. But here again, harsh reality will intrude on Obama’s fantasy about a change in the prime minister’s office being a guarantee of peace.

Abbas has already rejected a two-state deal that included a Palestinian state in Gaza, almost all the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem when Ehud Olmert offered him such an accord in 2008. He refused to even negotiate seriously with Netanyahu even though the prime minister accepted the two-state concept in 2009. Livni knows this because she was Netanyahu’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians for the past two years and has publicly complained that Abbas showed no interest in making a deal.

Will that change simply because Netanyahu isn’t in office? It’s theoretically possible, but given that the dynamic of Palestinian politics remains unchanged, it’s hard to see how things will be different. With Gaza still in the hands of Hamas and Abbas fearful of elections in the West Bank that he might lose (he is currently serving in the tenth year of a four-year term), it is highly unlikely. After years of avoiding being put in a position where he would have to commit political suicide by making peace, Abbas has no incentive to change now. So long as he and his people are unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it doesn’t matter if the Likud, Labor, or any other Zionist party leads Israel, the outcome will be the same.

One would also expect a change in tone in discussions about Iran if Netanyahu doesn’t win. Yet Obama would be mistaken to think that Herzog would be any happier with a deal that allows the Islamist regime to become a nuclear threshold state than Netanyahu has been. Despite the carping at Netanyahu from many in the security establishment, there has always been a consensus among Israeli mainstream figures about the serious nature of the nuclear threat from Iran. The mild-mannered Herzog may express his disagreement with Obama in more measured tones, but the divide between the two countries over the desirability of détente with Iran is not one that will disappear with a Labor-led government. The same holds true about Iranian adventurism in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and even Gaza.

Those hoping for a Netanyahu defeat shouldn’t get their hopes up too high. The latest polls still show the Likud leading Labor. Moreover, even if Labor ties the Likud or earns a slight edge, it won’t be easy for Herzog to put a new government together. Though he has a path to a 61-seat majority, it is a precarious one involving discarding his Meretz ally and the Arab parties and making deals with centrist parties that are more natural partners for Likud. For that to be considered likely, Herzog’s party, which just fired its campaign strategist (always a bad sign this close to the voting) will have to beat Netanyahu’s Likud handily, something that doesn’t seem particularly likely at the moment.

But even if he does somehow win, the change will be one of personalities rather than on substance on the peace process. So long as the Arabs exercise their veto on peace, it really doesn’t matter who is prime minister of Israel. Neither Netanyahu nor Herzog will make peace with the Palestinians and there’s nothing Obama can do about it.

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Must Netanyahu Give That Speech?

With every passing day, more Democrats are claiming they will boycott Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s scheduled speech on Iran sanctions to a joint session of Congress next month. This is, as I wrote earlier, largely the result of a partisan campaign by the president and his blind partisan supporters and not because what Netanyahu is planning to do is some sort of outrageous or unprecedented stunt. But unfair or not, there is no getting around the fact that Netanyahu’s hope that he could replicate his triumphant 2011 appearance before Congress is not realistic. In response, the prime minister and his backers are saying that this is beside the point and insist that he has a duty to come to Washington to tell the truth about Iran to a Congress and an American people that are in desperate need of that message. That sounds quite noble and is, to a certain extent, true, as Americans have been getting a lot of misinformation about the issue in recent weeks. But it is also beside the point. The painful truth is that although he is in the right on the issue and Obama quite wrong, the prime minister is helping to derail the debate on Iran and will continue to do so as long as he persists in his determination to give the speech.

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With every passing day, more Democrats are claiming they will boycott Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s scheduled speech on Iran sanctions to a joint session of Congress next month. This is, as I wrote earlier, largely the result of a partisan campaign by the president and his blind partisan supporters and not because what Netanyahu is planning to do is some sort of outrageous or unprecedented stunt. But unfair or not, there is no getting around the fact that Netanyahu’s hope that he could replicate his triumphant 2011 appearance before Congress is not realistic. In response, the prime minister and his backers are saying that this is beside the point and insist that he has a duty to come to Washington to tell the truth about Iran to a Congress and an American people that are in desperate need of that message. That sounds quite noble and is, to a certain extent, true, as Americans have been getting a lot of misinformation about the issue in recent weeks. But it is also beside the point. The painful truth is that although he is in the right on the issue and Obama quite wrong, the prime minister is helping to derail the debate on Iran and will continue to do so as long as he persists in his determination to give the speech.

Let’s specify again, lest there be any confusion as to the rights and wrongs of the issue, that President Obama’s opposition to the bipartisan bill sponsored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez is utterly illogical if his goal is to actually pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. If, however, as seems more than evident, the president’s objective is détente with Iran, then his opposition to Kirk-Menendez makes perfect sense. And that is why the bipartisan majority that already existed within both houses of Congress for sanctions should persist in their plans to pass a bill and, if necessary, override Obama’s threatened veto.

But the idea that the factor that will ensure such a vote is a speech by Netanyahu is farcical.

Though he and his supporters speak as if members of Congress need to hear a speech from him in order to understand the issue, this is an issue that Congress has been debating for years. Interested members have gotten regular briefings and know very well Israel’s cogent argument in favor of more pressure on the Iranians. The only difference between last year when large majorities backed an earlier version of Kirk-Menendez and now is that Harry Reid is no longer in a position to prevent a vote on it in the Senate.

Despite the talk of a Netanyahu speech as indispensable, the chances of amassing a veto-proof majority were actually better before the announcement of House Speaker Boehner’s invitation than now. Weeks ago, the administration was resigned to a veto fight that they knew they stood a good chance of losing. But thanks to Netanyahu’s foolish decision to walk into the trap that Obama laid for him, they seem confident that they can, at worst, sustain the veto.

Netanyahu provided Obama and his allies with the perfect distraction from his Iran policy and the president has made the most of it. Democrats speak of the invitation as an underhanded plot even if we now know that the White House was informed of the plan before Netanyahu accepted the invite. And many of them have bought the White House’s argument that his trip is an insult to the first African-American president. They have deftly exploited partisan tensions between the parties on the Hill and even played the race card in a despicable effort to get the Congressional Black Caucus to give momentum to the boycott of Netanyahu.

This is terrible, but it is now a political fact that Netanyahu and his backers must acknowledge. The longer Washington is discussing whether the prime minister should come to Congress, the lower the chances of passing sanctions.

It’s time for Netanyahu to come to grips with the question of what his real goal is here. If it’s to help the Republicans and Democrats who are working hard to pass this bill, he should know it’s time for him to find an excuse to back down and not give the speech. His is a powerful and eloquent voice, but what Congress needs to hear now is the sound of Democrats like Menendez and his colleagues making the case for sanctions, not a foreign leader, albeit from a country that most members of the House and the Senate regard with affection. It is only when he removes himself as a distraction from this debate that sanctions advocates will have a chance to get the focus back on Obama’s indefensible policies rather than Netanyahu’s supposed chutzpah.

I know admitting this goes against the grain for many in the pro-Israel community who want the satisfaction of seeing Netanyahu openly challenge Obama. But their emotional gratification from having the prime minister proudly stand up for his country’s interests again on the big stage of Capitol Hill is nothing beside the damage this discussion is doing to the chances for passage of Kirk-Menendez.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu’s agenda here is more about providing a compelling visual in the weeks before Israeli voters go to the polls to elect a new Knesset, he’s not only undermining the cause he says he values, he’s also rolling the dice with the Israeli voters. It may be that they will like the imagery of Netanyahu speaking truth to Congress. After all, Obama has alienated Israelis for years with his decisions and, as polls continue to show, they don’t trust him. But Israelis may also note the absence of many Democrats and draw some negative conclusions.

In 2011, members of both parties gave him dozens of standing ovations while he spoke to Congress. The demonstration was not only reminiscent of a previous Congress’ embrace of Winston Churchill, it was also a direct rebuke of Obama for seeking to ambush Netanyahu and to tilt the diplomatic playing field against Israel. Though the White House hasn’t played fair, there will be no such triumph this time. More to the point, no matter how well he speaks, his message will be obscured by the controversy over his invitation. He may say it is his duty to give the speech, but if his objective is to help pass Kirk-Menendez, there is a better argument to be made that it is his duty not to give it.

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Even After Speech Fiasco, Israel Will Survive Netanyahu-Obama Feud

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session has brought down on his head the scorn of the American political establishment and press. But all is not lost for Netanyahu. There may be no good solution to his dilemma with respect to the speech to Congress and little hope that the Obama administration will do the right thing with respect to Iran, he remains the most likely person to emerge from Israel’s March election as the next prime minister. Though some may think that would be an even bigger disaster for his country considering that administration sources are spreading rumors that President Obama will never again meet with Netanyahu, no one should think such an outcome will be the end of the alliance or even such bad news for the prime minister.

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It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session has brought down on his head the scorn of the American political establishment and press. But all is not lost for Netanyahu. There may be no good solution to his dilemma with respect to the speech to Congress and little hope that the Obama administration will do the right thing with respect to Iran, he remains the most likely person to emerge from Israel’s March election as the next prime minister. Though some may think that would be an even bigger disaster for his country considering that administration sources are spreading rumors that President Obama will never again meet with Netanyahu, no one should think such an outcome will be the end of the alliance or even such bad news for the prime minister.

Though Netanyahu’s American supporters continue to defend the idea of him giving such a speech, there’s no way to sugarcoat what has become a disaster for Israel and the prime minister. The blunder has not only made it easier for President Obama to divert attention from his indefensible opposition to sanctions that would turn up the heat on Iran in the nuclear talks. It has also enabled the White House to rally Democrats to oppose more sanctions, causing some to say that they won’t even attend Netanyahu’s speech out of loyalty to the president. Joining the gang tackle, some in the press are floating stories about Ambassador Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s loyal aide and the person who helped cook up this fiasco with Boehner, being frozen out of future contacts with the administration.

But while, contrary to the expectations of some on the right, this hasn’t exactly boosted Netanyahu’s standing at home, neither has it caused his prospects for re-election to crash. Indeed, while his Likud Party seemed to be losing ground to the Labor-Tzipi Livni alliance that now calls itself the Zionist Camp, by the end of the week, polls showed that Netanyahu’s stock had gone up. A review of all the polls showed that Likud was either tied with Labor or edging slightly ahead.

More to the point, any way you look at the electoral math of the coming Knesset, finding a way for Labor leader Isaac Herzog to form a coalition, even one that isn’t particularly stable, seems highly unlikely.

Even if Herzog’s party manages to nose out Likud for the top spot in the March elections giving him the theoretical first shot at forming a coalition, his task seems impossible. A Labor-led coalition is theoretically possible but it would require the sort of coalition of not merely rivals but open enemies. Herzog must build his coalition with the joint Arab list — forcing him to rely on open anti-Zionists to form his “Zionist Camp” government — or the Ultra-Orthodox religious parties. It is impossible to imagine those two polar opposites serving together. But even if he eliminates one or the other, it’s equally difficult to see like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu or Yitzhak Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, working with the Arabs. It’s equally hard to imagine how Lapid or Meretz, Labor’s natural ally on the far left, co-exist with the religious parties or how either scenario for a coalition could last.

By contrast, it will be far easier for Netanyahu to assemble a coalition consisting of the parties of the right and the center even without the religious parties though it is highly likely that he would opt for a Cabinet that included the ultra-Orthodox this time, giving him yet another strong, albeit quarrelsome government to preside over.

Thus, the odds are that sometime this spring, Netanyahu will be sworn in for a fourth term as prime minister, much to the chagrin of his sparring partner in the White House. But if Obama won’t talk to Netanyahu and is even pledging as one anonymous White House source claimed, to be willing to make the prime minister pay a price for his effrontery in opposing him on sanctions, won’t that be terrible for Israel?

The short answer is that it certainly won’t make for a cordial relationship. But it’s hard to see how it will make things any worse than they have been for the last six years.

After all, Obama has been sniping at and snubbing Netanyahu and his country ever since he entered the presidency. Obama has tilted the diplomatic playing field in favor of the Palestinians, undermined Israel’s claims to Jerusalem in ways no predecessor had done and even cut off the resupply of ammunition during last summer’s war with Gaza out of pique at Netanyahu’s government.

But in spite of this, the all-important security relationship continued. What’s necessary for the alliance to function is that the Pentagon and Israel’s Ministry of Defense communicate regularly, not the president and the prime minister. The same goes for the two security establishments, that continue to work well together.

In fact, it might be a very good thing for the alliance if Obama were to refuse to meet Netanyahu for the remainder of his time in office. Only bad things tend to happen when the two, who openly despise each other, are forced to come together. It would be far better for both countries for the leaders to stay apart, enabling their underlings to do what needs to be done to ensure the security of both nations. Were Obama to try and take revenge on Israel by supporting the Palestinians in the United Nations, it would harm the U.S. as much, if not more than it would Israel.

Netanyahu also knows that whoever wins in 2016, with the possible and extremely unlikely exception of Rand Paul, any of the possibilities to be the 45th president will be friendlier to Israel than Obama.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear threat will continue to hang over Israel and the alliance and Obama’s push for détente with the Islamist regime is a genuine threat to the Jewish state’s security as well as to that of moderate Arab governments. But once the current arguments about sanctions subside, as they inevitably will, Israel will carry on and Obama’s enmity notwithstanding, it will survive. Even a fourth term for Netanyahu will not change that.

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The World Won’t Listen to Livni If She Wins

In what has already been a topsy-turvy Israeli election campaign Hatnua Party co-leader Tzipi Livni caused an uproar when she bragged about her efforts to persuade Secretary of State John Kerry to “torpedo” the Palestinian effort to gain United Nations recognition for their independence. That led some on the Israeli right to accuse Kerry of trying to intervene in the elections because reportedly Livni told him that if the U.S. let a UN Security Council resolution pass it would help Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Knesset vote. But their outrage is to be expected. Everyone knows the Obama administration wants Netanyahu to lose and that Livni and her new partner, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, are looking for a little help from Washington. But what is of particular interest is that Livni actually thinks, as she said yesterday in an Israel Army Radio interview, “the world listens to me.” If she wins, she will soon find out that “the world” and even the Obama administration, doesn’t differentiate between Israeli politicians as much as she thinks.

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In what has already been a topsy-turvy Israeli election campaign Hatnua Party co-leader Tzipi Livni caused an uproar when she bragged about her efforts to persuade Secretary of State John Kerry to “torpedo” the Palestinian effort to gain United Nations recognition for their independence. That led some on the Israeli right to accuse Kerry of trying to intervene in the elections because reportedly Livni told him that if the U.S. let a UN Security Council resolution pass it would help Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Knesset vote. But their outrage is to be expected. Everyone knows the Obama administration wants Netanyahu to lose and that Livni and her new partner, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, are looking for a little help from Washington. But what is of particular interest is that Livni actually thinks, as she said yesterday in an Israel Army Radio interview, “the world listens to me.” If she wins, she will soon find out that “the world” and even the Obama administration, doesn’t differentiate between Israeli politicians as much as she thinks.

Livni, who is running for the Knesset on her fourth different political party in the last decade, scored a coup when she managed to persuade Herzog not only to run a joint ticket with her party but also to “rotate” the prime ministership between the two if they won. Considering that polls showed Hatnua wouldn’t win a seat on its own, that shows she’s better at driving good bargains for her party than she was for her country during her time as foreign minister under Ehud Olmert or as lead negotiator with the Palestinians under Netanyahu the last two years.

Though her eclectic and often changing positions on the issues have placed her all over the political map, her main claim to fame in the past few years has been as the Israeli politician that American and European leaders have hoped would topple the much disliked Netanyahu. Indeed, during the first two years of the Obama administration, the White House wrongly thought Livni would soon replace him as prime minister. So it’s hardly surprising that Livni would attempt to play that card again so as to convince Israeli voters that their country’s growing diplomatic isolation is purely the result of Netanyahu’s bad judgment and that it would all change if only Livni were in power.

But whatever her chances of helping to topple the prime minister, she’s wrong if she thinks the international community will be substantially friendlier to a government that she helped run than the one she just left. The reasons for this should be obvious even to her.

Livni is, after all, a veteran Israeli politician, who served in senior positions in the governments led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as well as having a dual role as Minister of Justice and chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians under Netanyahu over the past two years. Though she has often garnered more sympathetic international press coverage than the notoriously prickly Netanyahu that has never translated into any actual support for her positions from foreign governments.

The problem for Livni is that while the differences between her and Netanyahu on the peace process can appear huge in an Israeli political context, they are actually insignificant when seen from the perspective of what the Palestinians and the international community are demanding of the Jewish state. Like Netanyahu, Livni believes the Palestinians must accept Israeli security guarantees, acknowledge that Israel will retain Jewish Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as recognize it as the nation state of the Jewish people, ending the conflict for all time.

Had Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas been willing to accept those terms he might have signed a peace treaty with Israel when Livni and her boss Olmert offered him a state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem in 2008 when she was foreign minister. Indeed, had he been really willing to make peace, he would have cut a deal with Livni in the peace talks sponsored by Kerry that Abbas blew up last spring. As with every previous peace initiative, the Palestinians were unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. Like many another politician, Livni may believe her own public relations spin about her ability to dazzle foreign leaders. But it is hard to believe that after her own bitter experiences with Abbas, she really thinks he is a peace partner as she and Herzog claim.

This is no small point because although the defeat of Netanyahu would be greeted with relief in Washington and every European capital, Israel’s dilemma would not be materially altered. Not even Herzog and Livni could withdraw from the West Bank on terms that Abbas, worried as he is about competition from Hamas, could accept, continuing the diplomatic stalemate. That will mean the next Israeli government would be subjected to the same sort of pressure to make unilateral concessions that no Israeli coalition could ever live with. Indeed, after the failure of Sharon’s experiment with withdrawal in Gaza (something that happened while Livni was in his Cabinet), no sane Israeli wants to risk a repeat of that fiasco with a new Hamasistan in the far more strategic West Bank.

As unpopular as Netanyahu may be abroad, Israel was not particularly beloved under other leaders either. Though the meme of Israel becoming too nationalist, insular and intolerant is a popular one and is repeatedly endlessly on op-ed pages, the world’s quarrel with Israel is one that cuts across mainstream political lines in the Jewish state. Those who wish it to make unilateral concessions to Palestinians who are not interested in peace won’t like Livni’s stipulations about a potential treaty any more than they do those of Netanyahu. Especially since it was her who was negotiating on his behalf when Abbas was refusing to budge an inch, as Kerry knows all too well. The growing chorus of support boycotts of Israel will not be stifled by a Herzog/Livni led coalition. Nor will a slightly more accommodating Israeli government appease the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

As for the Obama administration, there is no question that there will be jubilation in the White House and the State Department if Netanyahu loses. It would be nice to think that Washington would then back Livni in talks with Abbas, but the Palestinians inability to make peace will inevitably frustrate the president and Kerry and lead them to behave as they have always done and blame the Israelis.

There may be reasons for Israelis to choose a new prime minister but the notion that Livni will magically erase the country’s diplomatic isolation is a delusion that rests upon her hubris and mistaken belief in the dubious magic of her personality. No rational person who has been paying attention to the way the world interacts with and judges Israel over the past 20 years of peace processing should take such a fanciful idea seriously.

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Can Herzog and Livni Topple Netanyahu?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shuffling the Deck Won’t Topple Netanyahu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Threats Won’t Hurt Netanyahu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No “Legacy” Is Asset for Netanyahu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Israel’s Critics Listen to Its People?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel’s Critics and the Next Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coalition Talks Show Israeli Election Preserved Foreign Policy Status Quo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Israeli Election and the Media’s Teachable Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s the Cost of Living, Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netanyahu Rebuked But Still on Top

The consensus of most pundits in the aftermath of yesterday’s Israeli election is that the voters rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that polls showed him winning re-election in a landslide last summer, the gradual slide from that high point to a vote in which his current coalition got just half of the seats in the Knesset is a comedown. It reflects several mistakes that he made during this period and led to his Likud getting just 31 seats. That was the largest total won by any party, but far short of expectations. Thus, while Netanyahu is still the only possible person to fill the post of prime minister, he is faced with a tricky problem putting together a new coalition.

Netanyahu’s critics will make a meal out of this, and to some extent they are justified in doing so. His campaign was inept and fraught with misjudgments. But while the result does reflect a lack of affection for the prime minister, those attempting to argue that it reflects a vote of no confidence in his foreign policy are misinterpreting the vote. The big winner in yesterday’s vote was the centrist Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid. But Lapid’s positions on the peace process were virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu since while he favors peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he wants to retain the major settlement blocs and opposes the division of Jerusalem. Nor are his positions on domestic issues, including lowering taxes and a more equitable draft system that would lead to the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, incompatible with those of the prime minister. What follows now will be a difficult set of negotiations to create a new government. But there’s no doubt that when the dust settles, Netanyahu will still be on top and he will have a cabinet that may enable him to carry on the same policies that he implemented in the last four years. As defeats go, it isn’t too bad a result.

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The consensus of most pundits in the aftermath of yesterday’s Israeli election is that the voters rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that polls showed him winning re-election in a landslide last summer, the gradual slide from that high point to a vote in which his current coalition got just half of the seats in the Knesset is a comedown. It reflects several mistakes that he made during this period and led to his Likud getting just 31 seats. That was the largest total won by any party, but far short of expectations. Thus, while Netanyahu is still the only possible person to fill the post of prime minister, he is faced with a tricky problem putting together a new coalition.

Netanyahu’s critics will make a meal out of this, and to some extent they are justified in doing so. His campaign was inept and fraught with misjudgments. But while the result does reflect a lack of affection for the prime minister, those attempting to argue that it reflects a vote of no confidence in his foreign policy are misinterpreting the vote. The big winner in yesterday’s vote was the centrist Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid. But Lapid’s positions on the peace process were virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu since while he favors peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he wants to retain the major settlement blocs and opposes the division of Jerusalem. Nor are his positions on domestic issues, including lowering taxes and a more equitable draft system that would lead to the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, incompatible with those of the prime minister. What follows now will be a difficult set of negotiations to create a new government. But there’s no doubt that when the dust settles, Netanyahu will still be on top and he will have a cabinet that may enable him to carry on the same policies that he implemented in the last four years. As defeats go, it isn’t too bad a result.

The list of Netanyahu’s campaign mistakes begins with his on-again, off-again alliance with the Kadima party last summer. A merger followed that with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu that would end up being a tactical mistake since it left many Russian-born voters searching for another secular party to back. Many chose Lapid, helping him to a stunning total of 19 seats. A swing to the right by Likud primary voters gave him a more extreme parliamentary list to run with and caused some more bleeding to the center. Yet ironically, many on the right abandoned Netanyahu to embrace Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party that also made big gains.

Most of all, Netanyahu’s problem was due to the fact that voters knew they didn’t have to vote for the Likud in order to be assured that he would remain prime minister. The lack of any credible alternative to him meant that many of those who would have pulled the lever for him personally felt that what they were voting for in Israel’s single party vote system was a choice of which party would be his major coalition partner. Though many in the foreign press are claiming that Lapid’s showing is a slap at Netanyahu or even a rejection of his policies, it is more likely that most were just saying that they wanted a Likud-Yesh Atid government, not a different prime minister.

The twists and turns of the coalition negotiations can’t be predicted with any accuracy, but the most likely scenario remains one in which Netanyahu forms a government with Lapid and some other smaller parties with the ultra-Orthodox parties on the sidelines. That will allow a long sought-after change in the draft laws that will be immensely popular. And it will also mean no real change in the country’s position on talks with the Palestinians. Since the Palestinian Authority isn’t likely to return to peace talks no matter who is running Israel, anyone who asserts that the election changes anything on this score is simply wrong.

The bottom line for Netanyahu is that even though the election didn’t go as well for him as he would have liked, the repercussions from the vote don’t really impact his ability to stay in office or continue the policies that are most important to him. No matter which of the possible combinations of parties that will make up the new government wind up in the cabinet, Netanyahu will not be impeded from prioritizing the Iranian nuclear threat or in sticking to his position on the peace process. Nor should he, since nothing in the vote indicates that these policies aren’t popular. That’s something that many of Netanyahu’s critics, including President Obama, should keep in mind as they seek to pressure him to change them.

Though he is battered, that still leaves Netanyahu a winner as he contemplates his third term as prime minister.

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Can Yair Lapid Survive Success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netanyahu Wins, Religious Parties May Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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