Chemi Shalev
Haaretz (Opinion)
January 24, 2013 - 1:00am


In a contest in which 34 parties participate, it is almost a mission impossible to decipher what motivated Israelis to vote the way they did in Tuesday’s election. The permutations are endless and can be used to support theories and explanations that are often contradictory.

But whatever their individual intentions, the good news is that Israeli voters have elected a government that is bound to be more centrist, more moderate, more secular, more pluralistic and more inclusive than its predecessor or any of the alternatives that seemed plausible just a few short days ago.

The bad news is that such a government is bound to fall apart at the first hint of any kind of movement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Despite the current wishful thinking in the left, the 60-60 tie between the Knesset’s so-called parliamentary “blocs” is unlikely to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from becoming prime minister for the third time - but it does deprive him of the most effective bargaining chip at his disposal as he tries to set up a new coalition. He will be negotiating from a weaker position than anticipated and will be forced to make political concessions that he has hitherto avoided.

Netanyahu cannot establish a narrow coalition with Naftali Bennett’s radical Habayit Hayehudi party and the ultra-Orthodox parties because the numbers don’t add up. Thus, he is in no position to dictate terms or make a “take it or leave it,” offer to potential coalition partners on the Likud-Beiteinu’s left.  In order to set up a workable coalition, Netanyahu will have to leave his comfort zone and to agree to policies that will push his coalition toward the center, even at the risk of alienating some of his traditional political allies.

Netanyahu’s main partner in the new coalition is bound to be Yair Lapid, the clear-cut winner of the election, possibly with other centrist parties. Lapid’s campaign was focused on domestic policies, mainly the need to enlist ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to the army.  He did his best to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferring to stick to consensual generalizations on an undivided Jerusalem and the lack of a credible peace partner.

But the impact of Lapid’s theoretically pivotal position on any new coalition rests less on his stated positions and more on the general makeup of his Knesset list and of their potential cooling effect on the hot-headed radicals in the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. Any coalition with Lapid will be effectively barred from promoting the kind of anti-democratic measures that the outgoing Knesset was infamous for.

Lapid and his band of motivated if inexperienced colleagues are bound to stand up for the rule of law, for civil rights, for social justice, for incorrupt governance and, insofar as they will have a role in foreign policy, for broadcasting a gentler and kinder Israeli face to the world. By their very presence, they will neutralize the insular, xenophobic and often jingoistic currents flowing through the parties that are considered to be Netanyahu’s “natural partners” that had threatened to swamp basic underpinnings of Israeli democracy.

It is thus not too much of a stretch to optimistically foresee a functioning coalition that coalesces around the need for domestic reforms, mostly on the economic front; agrees, perhaps, on significant electoral reform; and unites on a policy that views the Iranian nuclear threat as a clear and present danger that is Israel’s number one concern.

Nonetheless, such a coalition would be fragile from the moment of its inception. Even if the parties overcome their significant differences on other matters in order to move forward, they are bound to stumble early in the new coalition’s tenure over each and every trivial development related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this area, the gaps between the parties are unbridgeable and irreconcilable.

Because notwithstanding their intentional obfuscation of the Palestinian issue in their election campaign, Lapid and his colleagues support a two-state solution. They are likely to seek a curtailment of construction in settlements and will definitely reject any change in the status quo in the territories. More importantly, they will find it impossible to stay in any government that seems to be rejecting or undermining any initiative aimed at relaunching the peace process.

But many members of the new Likud-Beiteinu list as well as most of those in Bennett’s party aren’t your run-of-the mill, garden-variety skeptics who will allow a peace process to move forward on the assumption that it will lead nowhere. These are true believers, die-hard ideological opponents of the two-state solution, suspicious of any and all maneuvers, even those deemed expedient or tactical. Unlike recent generations of pragmatic Likudniks, most of the new crop of right-wingers in the Knesset are built of sterner stuff.

The upshot is that such a center-right coalition will be living on borrowed time. Its self-destructive mechanism will be implanted at its core from day one. Its continued existence will be predicated on continued and total paralysis on the Palestinian front, a prospect that seems unrealistic, even if the Iranian issue assumes center stage.

The key to the longevity of whatever new government Netanyahu forms, therefore, rests in the hands of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Barack Obama just as much, if not more, than in those of the politicians who will eventually affix their names to any coalition agreement. This, in and of itself, is enough to keep Netanyahu awake at nights for some time to come.


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