Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
January 24, 2013 - 1:00am


BIBI has the blues.

Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned as the incarnation of a strong Israel, square-jawed before the Western Wall. He emerged weakened and chastened. The Israeli people delivered the one thing he believed an early election would not produce: A comeuppance.

He has only himself to blame after an abject campaign marked by his decision to unite Likud with the party of the rightist former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who had to quit over legal troubles. Bibi tried to convey inevitable destiny; he had no new ideas. The result was social unease and diplomatic drift. Israelis are no exception to the rule that you cannot fool all the people all the time.

The price of his survival as prime minister — and survival is now the best he can muster — will almost certainly be a pivot away from the right toward a centrist coalition. President Obama will not be the only world leader allowing himself a quiet smile.

The Israel that emerged from the vote is not the rightward-drifting, annexationist-tending, religious-lurching nation it has become fashionable to portray. The Jewish state, far from moving right, turned toward the center. It is tired of the old guard, embracing new political parties. It is impatient with the free-loading ultra-Orthodox who do not serve in the army but do soak up welfare. It has sufficient lingering interest in a two-state peace to split roughly down the middle on the issue.

The personality of the election was Yair Lapid, a good-looking former talk show host whose centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party ran second the year after it was formed. The party’s economy-focused, draft-the-Orthodox campaign attracted a secular, middle-class Israel and became chief heir to the social justice movement of 2011. The Labor Party, under another ex-journalist, Shelly Yachimovich, bounced back with some of the same themes.

Persistent obituaries dedicated to Israel’s center-left proved premature.

As for the much-vaunted religious-nationalist arriviste, Naftali Bennett, he fell short of expectations. He had vowed to “do everything in my power, forever, to fight against a Palestinian state being founded in the Land of Israel.” This unambiguous message left his Jewish Home party trailing Lapid by several seats. Bennett the blunt-talker emerged as a significant political presence rather than a game-changing phenomenon emblematic of the supposedly irresistible rise of the Israeli settler.

So what now? Netanyahu announced on Facebook that he believed Israelis want him to “continue in my position as prime minister” and “form as broad a coalition as possible.” The second conclusion is right. The first is unconvincing from a politician whose bloc has just lost more than a quarter of its seats, falling to 31 from 42 in the 120-member Knesset. A better conclusion would have been: “Israelis cannot think of an alternative to me for now but want a new direction.”

In practice that means Netanyahu reaching out to Lapid’s party, with 19 seats in the new Parliament, as the basis for a new coalition. Among its top members is Yaakov Perry, a former chief of Israel’s internal security service. Perry told Channel 2 TV the party has red lines it will not cross. Any government it joins, he suggested, would have to pledge to begin drafting the ultra-Orthodox, reduce the cost of living, and return to peace talks with the Palestinians.

Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer who works for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, tweeted: “What a great surprise! Whatever the results message to us 2 staters is NOT, as we feared, slash your wrists, but rather roll up your sleeves.”

That seems right. Israelis did not embrace the peace camp — Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who has pushed strongly for renewed negotiations, was an also-ran. They are more focused on domestic issues than a peace of which they are skeptical. But they are also unhappy with Netanyahu’s relegation of Palestinian-Israeli relations to somewhere behind the back-burner. They rewarded a party that wants to change that.

Netanyahu has been disingenuous. Under pressure from Obama he declared for the first time in his Bar-Ilan University speech in June 2009 that he would accept a “demilitarized Palestinian state.” But his party, Likud, never went that far. Indeed, in a clumsy attempt to finesse that rejection, it did not even produce a revised platform for this election.

The thrust of Netanyahu’s policy was to go on building West Bank settlements; allow these annexationist “facts on the ground” to speak; play down the substantial role of the Palestinian Authority in delivering security for Israelis, dismiss the Authority’s success in building institutions of statehood; reduce Bar-Ilan to a rhetorical aside rather than a meaningful shift; push Iran to the front of the agenda as an existential threat although it scarcely even figured in the election debate; and kick the can down the road so as to preserve a dominion over West Bank Palestinians now approaching its 50th year.

This was an attempt to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. It infuriated many world leaders. It isolated Israel. It did not work — not with Obama and not with Israelis who want to be leveled with. Think again, Bibi.


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