Elections and US tensions

Early elections in Israel amount to a referendum on Netanyahu's policies. Will the Israelis once again opt for the safety first option, or could other issues hold sway.

Early December marked the de facto start of the Israeli election campaign when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his ministers of finance and justice, Yaer Lapid and Tzipi Livni, respectively. In a live television broadcast that same evening, Netanyahu announced early elections and relaunched his message to the nation: Israel needs an expert leader, next time vote for me alone.

It was a carefully calculated risk, based on the communication grip that Bibi (as he is known at home) has always had on Israelis. Netanyahu knew that the coalition experiment to emerge from the January 2013 elections – between the right wing led by his Likud Party with its relative majority and the centrist Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties – had failed some time ago and would not last through the second half of its term.

Events were partly to blame for the fact that election results did not match initial expectations. The war in Gaza and the resurgence of violent attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv meant security became a higher priority. However, Israel’s moderate politicians, who held a quarter of the seats in the previous parliament, also failed to keep their promises when they had the chance. 

 Apart from the difficulties of initiating social reform and real peace talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has clearly been pursuing his own political endgame. He thwarted his centrist allies – Lapid and Yesh Atid as well as Livni and her Hatnua movement – while constantly dwelling on Israel’s enemies at the gates: Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic State (IS) and Iran.

Thus, the country is back on the starting blocks for an election campaign that continues along the same lines as two years ago – namely, security vs. economy. Which begs the question: Has the political dogma of ‘security at all costs’ worn thin?

Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of diverting billions of shekels into military spending and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem without even protecting Israelis from rockets and attacks.

Isaac Herzog, standing for prime minister on the single Zionist Camp slate with Livni, has accused Netanyahu of being “cut off” from everyday life and of making a fine art of exaggerating threats. Herzog’s platform combines social spending, insecurity and middle-class aspirations in a hybrid left-right mix that could hurt him at the ballot box, despite the positive opinion polls. In fact, some analysts and members of the intelligentsia believe the only way to change Israelis’ long-held idea that other leaders could improve their lives but only Bibi lets them sleep soundly at night is to stand as a real alternative to Netanyahu. Forecasts predict that Likud and Zionist Camp will win around 20 seats, far from the 61 (out of the Knesset’s 120) needed for a majority government, so they will have to form a coalition. Netanyahu can count on strong allies: the national right-wing Yisrael Beitenu Party and extremist religious party HaBayit Ha Yehudi. The centre-left, on the other hand, should try and incorporate the newly formed Kulanu Party, the radicals of Meretz, the Hadash Communists and the Arab-Israeli parties and perhaps even strike a deal with the ultra-orthodox religious factions.

Netanyahu himself seems sure he will win. Nonetheless, Israel’s difficult relationship with the international community must also be considered in the run-up to the elections. Army excesses in Gaza and the occupation have further alienated Israel, especially in its relations with the US. Everyone knows there is no love lost between Barack Obama and Netanyahu, though US support has always come Israel’s way at crucial times. “There are deep divisions between the current governments over which interests and terms should prevail with regard to the Palestinian question. But the alliance between Israel and the United States is solid”, says Max Singer, cofounder of the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

During his trip to Jerusalem in March 2013, President Obama made one of his classic speeches, saying “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine”. It was a message he reiterated in private meetings with the Netanyahu government. Indeed, rather than two states (one for the Palestinians and one for the Jews), the idea that a single state containing the current explosive situation will be created by inertia is more than just a possibility for many here, both Israelis and Palestinians, who are exasperated by the stalled peace talks.

While Israel and the US may currently be out of synch, their relations have not changed, despite the fact that in the second half of last year, which was riddled with conflicts, many Israelis did wonder what would happen if there were no money and weapons from America to protect them. Obama has been a pro-Israel president, as per tradition, despite opening up somewhat to Islam and Iran at the start of his presidency. Yet ultimately, and without constraints, he surprised everyone by easing certain restrictions with Cuba.

Israelis only want one thing apart from the survival of their country: the presence of their political and military guarantor, the United States, by their side. And with Netanyahu in situ today and perhaps tomorrow, no one here in Israel can be sure of that anymore. 

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