Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu, European Union, Gaza, HaBayit HaYehudi, Iran, Isaac Herzog, Israel, John Boehner, John Kerry, Knesset, Kulanu, Likud, Meretz, Mitch McConnell, Moshe Kahlon, nuclear, Palestine, Reuven Rivlin, Samantha Power, Saudi Arabia, settlements, Susan Rice, United List, United States, UTJ, West Bank, Yahadut HaTora HaMeuhedet, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu, Zionist Union
March 17 is an important day for many reasons, but it is known primarily for being the death anniversary of Patrick, one of the patron saints of Ireland. On this day in 180, Marcus Aurelius died, very unwisely, leaving the Empire to Commodus; in 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, perhaps equally unwisely; and in 2015, Israel went to the polls and elected Binyamin Netanyahu…how wisely, is yet to be seen. These elections have evinced interest from important capitals in the West and the region, for Israel’s policies could influence a very volatile region at a crucial juncture.
Netanyahu’s reelection is a big blow to the Democrats in the United States. The difficult relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is no secret; Jerusalem and Washington have differences on the Palestinian question but Iran has made the relationship even more acrimonious. While the White House has sought to engage diplomatically with Tehran and come to a negotiated settlement, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office has insisted on a harsher interpretation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Iran’s obligations under it as a signatory. In September 2012, Netanyahu made a speech in the United Nations that urged the United States to draw clear red lines on Iranian nuclear development beyond which to consider a military solution to the issue. Israel has stuck to this stance despite several public statements from Israel’s own former intelligence chiefs that downplayed the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel.
In January of this year, the Netanyahu-Obama relationship became even more acrid when the Israeli prime minister accepted an invitation from John Boehner, the leader of the US House of Representatives, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, to address a joint session of the US Congress. The Republicans, who were critical of Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Tehran, were incensed at the US president’s threat to veto any bill that proposed passing new sanctions on Iran and broke diplomatic protocol by inviting a foreign head of state to Congress without the knowledge of the White House. This saga unfolded in the wake of ugly allegations that the US State Department had funded a tax-exempt organisation to undermine Netanyahu’s bid for reelection. In February 2015, senior US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, publically criticised Netanyahu and some even took to the social media platform Twitter to attack him.
It is important to understand this background for it informs the outcome of the Israeli election. The most important issue that concerns Israel today, according to Netanyahu, is the nuclearisation of Iran. On this, he has shown willingness to damage Israel’s relations with its closest ally and even weaken the bipartisan support it has enjoyed in the US Congress. This brinkmanship and fearmongering on the international scene finds strong support domestically. Netanyahu’s victory confirms that many ordinary Israelis agree with his assessment even over the opinion of their military and intelligence chiefs. While opinion poll after opinion poll tells us that Israelis are concerned about the social issues such as the cost of living, housing, and employment, Netanyahu’s Likud surged ahead of Isaac Herzog and his Zionist Union upon promises that Netanyahu would never accept a Palestinian state and continue to expand settlements in the disputed territories. Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu, who had actually run on an economic platform, managed only fifth place with 10 seats, behind the Likud, Zionist Union, (Arab) United List, and Yesh Atid. Similar behaviour was observed even in 2013, and with 72 per cent voter turnout in these elections, ideology and identity seem to mean far more to Israelis than socioeconomic well-being – not a surprising conclusion but one that militates against the logic of the rational actor. Perhaps because for Israelis, ideology and identity is synonymous with security – a higher order need than bread alone.
Netanyahu was also helped by the fact that many of those who voted for him did so only because they could not see any viable alternative. To the middle class, he has been a disappointment though most admit that he is their man on security. What might put a spanner in the works is President Reuven Rivlin had earlier indicated that he would seek a national unity government. Given the political landscape, it would be very difficult for Herzog to produce a winning combination: he would have to seduce the Yahadut HaTora HaMeuhedet away from the Likud with concessions to synagogues, unite Meretz, the United List, and Yesh Atid behind him, and hope that Kahlon does not return to his Likud roots. Instead, the size of Likud’s victory might just persuade Rivlin to invite the leader of the largest party to form the governing coalition rather than maintain his earlier desire.
Netanyahu has used two issues to rally his base – the fear of a nuclear Iran and the undesirability of Palestinian statehood. His victory now puts Israel on a collision course with both the European Union and the United States, the former over Palestine and settlements and the latter over Iran. Unfortunately, the Israeli prime minister has no solutions of his own to offer either. On Palestine, Israel has two choices – accept their statehood or incorporate them into a larger, multicultural, non-Jewish Israel. The only other option is to use military force to initiate a mass exodus of the people of Gaza and the West Bank, a thoroughly unpalatable course of action with dire consequences for Jerusalem.
To become prime minister, however, one needs 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset and the Likud’s 30 means there will be a coalition yet again. A coalition of the religious parties and Likud alone will not suffice to give Netanyahu the majority he needs and so he will have to reach out to the centrists at least. All centrist and leftist parties support Palestinian statehood though each have their own caveats. Nonetheless, this means that there will be support for Palestinian statehood within the ruling coalition and that could restrict the prime minister’s hand during his term.
From Iran, Netanyahu expects total supplication. No country could accept such terms short of total conquest, especially not the proud Persians. To be fair, Israel’s concerns are not unfathomable, especially to Indians. Jerusalem fears the nuclear veto Tehran will possess on Israel’s range of options if Iran ever crosses the nuclear Rubicon, much the same way Pakistan holds India hostage today. Unfortunately for Israel, its options are constricted for war with Iran without the backing of the United States – even with the backing of the United States – will be a thoroughly taxing affair and not be limited to the deserts of the Middle East but spread to all Jewish assets across the globe. Furthermore, Israel’s greatest patron, Uncle Sam, is exhausted after over a decade of military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Even worse for Israel, sanctions alone have proven ineffective against Iran for several reasons.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and interestingly, Israel is not alone in its fear – paranoia? – about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. Netanyahu has the silent backing of at least Saudi Arabia and the majority of the Persian Gulf states such as Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. For reasons of political optics, it is a safe bet that this will not materialise into public support of Israel by the Arab monarchies and Israel will be remain isolated.
It would be an interesting exercise to study where the Likud got its votes. Compared to the results of the 2013 elections, it appears that the largest share of Likud’s votes came from other right-wing parties: while Likud jumped from 19 to 30, HaBayit HaYehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu fell from 12 and 11 to 8 and 6. On the whole, the right-wing parties have gained only one seat, from 43 to 44. It would, therefore, be inaccurate to consider this a landslide victory for the Right.
For India, the Israeli elections mean nothing. Delhi’s relations with Jerusalem are not so close that the finer differences between Israel’s political actors matter much to Raisina Hill. India plays the role of the deaf-mute in the Middle East for lack of capability (and willingness?) and has little influence on any side of any conflict. India would like to boost trade with Iran but Delhi has so far followed the American line and reduced its oil imports from the Middle Eastern state. Similarly, Israel is hardly likely to strike an alliance with Pakistan’s non-state friends – terrorists – nor is it likely to develop a strategic relationship with either Pakistan or China in the near future. Any government in Israel will be willing to develop its military and civilian relationship with India.
In sum, Netanyahu has come to power by playing on two major concerns, it appears, of the Israeli people and yet he has no solution to either. In fact, his preferences would put Israel squarely at war or at loggerheads with its close allies. At this moment, it is difficult to see how this will actualise into a successful prime ministership. One possibility is that Netanyahu will hope for a Republican victory in the next US presidential election; he will bide his time until January 2017 when Obama finally leaves office and hope to repair some of the damage done these past few years. Europe will be a tougher but less valuable nut to crack. For now, a sombre mood hangs over the Tehran, Washington, and a few pockets of Israel.