Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the March 17 Israeli elections proved one thing: He is a politician of the very highest order. His party, Likud, won and — by the standards of recent Israeli elections — won big. This is in many ways a personal triumph for Netanyahu, who is already Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister (1996-1999, 2009-?). Just days before Israelis voted, some polls showed his center-right party, Likud, trailing its chief opposition, the center-left Zionist Union. While Netanyahu has yet to form a government — he needs to assemble a coalition giving him an absolute majority in the Knesset, where Likud still only has a quarter of the total seats — he is almost certainly going to continue as Israel’s prime minister.
I will leave to experts on Israeli politics the task of parsing the reasons for Netanyahu’s victory: his success in attracting votes from right-wing parties, in part by raising the specter of Israeli Arabs voting in droves; the continuing eclipse of what remains of the Israeli left; and, not least, longer-term demographic shifts among Jewish Israelis.
What will Netanyahu’s triumph mean for U.S.-Israeli relations? There has long been no love lost between the prime minister and President Obama. Whatever goodwill remained was surely shredded by Netanyahu’s address to the U.S. Congress earlier this month. The Obama administration considered the speech — with good reason — to be an effort to embarrass the president politically and to undermine his efforts to strike a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.
Once Netanyahu forms a government, we can expect him and President Obama to “kiss and make up,” at least in public. There will likely be protestations on both sides about the enduring strength of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. These protestations, moreover, will contain an important element of truth. However tense relations may be between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there will be no “break” between the two countries. We can expect U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation to continue on a broad range of issues of mutual interest. The United States will continue to extend Israel both material support in terms of state-of-the-art weaponry and diplomatic cover in international fora.
Differences, of course, will remain. One is over an agreement with the U.S. and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. It is still unclear whether parties to the negotiations will be able to conclude a deal. What is clear, however, is that, whatever the details of the agreement, Netanyahu will oppose it, as it will leave Iran with a capacity to enrich uranium. He will also support ongoing efforts in the U.S. Congress to block any arrangement with Iran.
Another difference between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu is about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Late in the campaign, Netanyahu made explicit what many had long suspected: He is adamantly opposed to any two-state solution. Although the prime minister is already backing off his statement, his credibility on the issue is now gone. We can expect the United States to pressure Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume talks, however pointless they might be. Negotiations allow us to oppose international recognition of a Palestinian state by arguing that such recognition should be the result of an arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Such an argument will, of course, be the merest of fig leaves. But, in diplomacy, fig leaves — however scanty — can be useful.
We should not overplay the importance of Netanyahu’s statement on a two-state solution. It is not as though the peace process has been showing much life in recent years. Secretary Kerry’s strenuous efforts to broker a deal in 2013-2014, however admirable, yielded nothing. Even had the center-left been able to form a government in the wake of Tuesday’s elections, a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would still have been a long shot. The Palestinians remain hopelessly divided; the incentives for Israel to make any changes to the status quo are weak.
Has Netanyahu killed the peace process? If he has, it has merely been by pulling the plug on a patient already on life support.
Joe Barnes is the Baker Institute’s Bonner Means Baker Fellow. From 1979 to 1993, he was a career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, serving in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
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