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What’s Next, Mr. Prime Minister?

Photo: Ishai Parasol / Flickr

After running neck and neck, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defeated his chief challenger, Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union, in Tuesday’s elections in Israel. With the short-term upshot of these results still unknown—what will the new government look like?—we asked five experts: what do you believe to be the most significant longer-term consequences or concerns raised by Israel’s recent elections?


Leila Hilal, senior fellow for the International Security Program and the former director of the Middle East Task Force at New America

Following the elections, a question arises: what will become of the newly mobilized Palestinian citizens of Israel? Ideologically disparate groups have banded together under a single umbrella, the Joint List. Emboldened by the united front, Palestinian participation soared by 10 points to 69 percent.  The Joint List, inclusive of Islamists, secular nationalists, and Jewish and Palestinian leftists, won 14 seats, leaving it the third largest bloc in the parliament.

In a Middle East region fraught with fractious civil tensions and atrophying state legitimacy, the Joint List is a remarkable development.  It emerged after the Israeli Knesset adopted new threshold legislation effectively intended to disenfranchise Palestinians. By responding with a collective initiative aimed at circumventing the deleterious effects of the new law through institutional means, Palestinians demonstrated political maturity in the face of adversity. Importantly, the List included leftist Jews and gained support from solidarity voters.

It is unlikely, though, that the bloc will become an opposition force capable of influencing Israeli policies in the short-term. Relatively marginal Jewish support, party differences, and creeping apartheid-like rule, means that the new movement’s leverage is less about impacting government decision-making and more about serving as a platform for further public mobilization.

Following the election tallies, Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Knesset and chair of Balad party, which is part of the Joint List of Arab parties, said the List represents an inclusive movement for a state for all its citizens. As boycott campaigns heat up in the wake of the right-wing consolidation in Israel, such a platform can offer a compelling alternative to an untenable status quo. It is time that Israel and its international sponsors wake up to the peace imperative of co-existence. Accepting Palestinian equality should be the starting point.


Michael Koplow, Program Director of the Israel Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University, where he specialized in political development and ideology, and the politics of Middle Eastern states.

Aside from the obvious negative effects on Israel’s relations with the U.S. and Europe following Netanyahu’s comments rejecting a Palestinian state so long as he is prime minister, the most significant longer-term consequence is a reaffirmation of the trend that ideology and identity distinctly trump economics in Israeli politics. Just like in 2013, voters overwhelmingly listed socioeconomic concerns as their top issue in the run-up to the election, but ultimately that made little difference. There was no flock of new voters to Yesh Atid and Kulanu, which both ran on the economy and quality-of-life issues and had very little to say about security. Likud, which barely bothered to campaign on specific policies, hugely increased its vote share by essentially saying: trust Netanyahu on security and send a message to the leftists and their foreign backers trying to take over your country.

It was an emotional and identity-based appeal to nationalism that resonated with many voters, and it is a tactic that is sure to be replicated on both sides in the future. This is especially dangerous in Israel, where the structure of the political system appears to grant large mandates that aren’t there. Likud won 25% of the seats in the Knesset and Netanyahu will control the winning coalition as prime minister. Taking a step back though, Israel’s system of proportional representation means that in reality, he won only 23% of the votes cast. He the clear winner, but 77% of Israeli voters chose someone else. This does not invalidate his win, but it does encourage post-election overreach. When the clear victor can only manage to get 1 out of every 4 votes cast, the system is probably not translating voters’ preferences into the appropriate policy outputs, and this can be particularly harmful when identity politics constitute such a key feature of campaigns.


Ari Ratner, fellow at New America. From 2009-2012, he served as an appointee at the State Department. Follow him on Twitter at @amratner.

There’s an old joke among Mideast peace process hands: you’ll never be out of work. But after widespread rumors of his demise, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (like Vladimir Putin) is back from the dead. It makes you wonder whether the peace process hands might just quit.

With complicated negotiations to secure a coalition still impending, Bibi nevertheless looks certain to enter his 4th term as Prime Minister. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the fallout from Bibi’s win:

The good: No matter the campaign’s vicious tone, the election itself encapsulated the vibrancy of Israeli democracy and society. While Netanyahu’s Likud party triumphed, a renewed left led by the Labor party reemerged as a serious power. A united list among Israeli Arabs parties placed third. And smaller parties centered on everything from social welfare, to religion, to ideologies spanning both left and right will all be represented in the new Knesset— even as the extreme Yachad party appears not to have won enough votes to be represented at all.

The bad: the vote also showed Bibi’s ugly side. He waged a scorched earth campaign, clearly harming his relationship with the US. The damage extends beyond his  personal relationship with President Obama: Israel has increasingly become a partisan and generational issue. Bibi’s behavior will only exacerbate that trend. Bibi promised that there wouldn’t be a Palestinian state on his watch. He urged his voters to the polls with the specter of Israeli-Arabs “coming out in droves”. He may have even broken Israeli election law.

While Bibi may backtrack now— he’s an agile politician—these are wounds that won’t be easily healed. And many potential crises lie ahead: Iran’s nuclear program, simmering Palestinian discontent, and a region plagued by violence.

It was an election result without much hope for change.


Lisa Goldman, Director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative. Previously a senior editor at the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog, she also worked as a journalist in the Middle East for more than a decade and co-founded +972, a progressive Tel Aviv-based digital magazine.

Benjamin Netanyahu destroyed quite a few bridges on his way to being re-elected. Besides starting a very public feud with the publisher of Israel’s leading daily newspaper, he shredded relations with the Obama administration by accepting John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress on March 3.

More recently, and perhaps even more importantly, he told an Israeli news outlet that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. In other words, he finally made explicit what he has been saying implicitly for many years — decades, even: He opposes a two-state solution and he opposes Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories. That should have some serious consequences for US foreign policy toward Israel. Until now, the US has shielded Israel from diplomatic censure at international bodies like the UN, based on the understanding that arriving at a two-state solution was a “shared value” that would ultimately be achieved via the peace process. They looked away from settlement building in the West Bank because they allegedly thought there was an unspoken agreement that those settlements were temporary. Now we know they are meant to be permanent. And now the US can no longer claim that Israel is interested in another peace initiative. If the State Department decides to respond to Netanyahu’s announcement by lifting its diplomatic protection, Israel would find itself quite isolated, both at the UN and in Europe — particularly if the EU, which is Israel’s biggest trading partner, decides to go ahead with economic sanctions.


Brian K. Barber, Jacobs Foundation Fellow at New America, writing a book narrating the lives of six men from the Gaza Strip who he has interviewed regularly for the past 20 years since they emerged as youth from the first Palestinian intifada in 1993. He is currently a professor of child and family studies and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict at the University of Tennessee.

Maisa, a West Bank Palestinian healthcare worker, was recently quoted as preferring a Netanyahu election victory. The statement rings eerily familiar. It was that same sentiment—when uttered by Fuad, the father of the refugee camp family in the Gaza Strip that I had just begun living with in 1996—that I challenged on the morning of May 30 of that year when the news reported Netanyahu’s victory over Shimon Peres. Then very naïve to the experience of Palestinians, I was befuddled that Fuad didn’t share my disappointment that Peres—the seemingly more liberal, Labor leader and “peace architect”—had lost. In terms very similar to Maisa’s, Fuad patiently explained to me 19 years ago that Palestinians would rather have an Israeli government that is straight with them in articulating its harsh intent, rather than obfuscating it behind misleading rhetoric.

Thus, there will likely be no new level of alarm for Palestinians with Netanyahu’s victory—just more of the same. What has been worrisome, however, is how much outside observers have bought into the ideas that a Labor government would have acted differently towards Palestinians in any meaningful way and that the “two-state solution” that Labor claims it favors is any longer feasible given the substantial changes on the ground—primarily via settlements—that both parties have systematically made.

In the end, Netanyahu’s candor and mandate make these concerns effectively moot. But his brazenness sets him up for clear standards of accountability. For Israel to merit the distinction of being the democracy it cherishes, he will have to both treat his full citizenry equitably and finally extend opportunity and rights to the millions of non-citizen Palestinians who reside in territories he claims as part of Israel. Neither seems likely.