A nation votes Netanyahu with eyes wide open

The country knows well that another Netanyahu government means tension with Obama and the world. That it nevertheless opted for this choice says much about how Israelis – not well-wishers from abroad – grasp their own reality

March 19, 2015 – 6:00 P.M.

WASHINGTON MADE made it clear on Wednesday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection victory, that if he wants to mend fences with the US, he better bring plenty of his own boards and nails – because this administration is not going to lend him much of a hand.

Forget worrying about how many days it will take – and how many days it is reasonable to wait – before US President Barack Obama calls Netanyahu and congratulates him on his victory. (George Bush called Ariel Sharon the very next day following his election victories in 2001 and 2003, though Obama waited six days before calling Netanyahu in 2013.)

All one had to do was to listen to US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki at her daily briefing on Wednesday to realize that Netanyahu’s most difficult task over the next few weeks will not be building a coalition at home, but rather rebuilding a relationship with the Obama administration in Washington.

Referring to Netanyahu’s comment Monday to the NRG website that a Palestinian state would not be created under his tenure, Psaki – reading from a prepared and obviously carefully written statement – reiterated that it has long been the position of the US, and successive Israeli governments, that only a two-state solution could bring peace.

“A two-state solution is the only way for the next Israeli government to secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” she said. “The prime minister, as we all know, in his comments earlier this week indicated that he is no longer committed to pursuing this approach. Based on the prime minister’s comments, the US is in a position going forward where we will be evaluating our approach with regard to how best to achieve a two-state solution.”

While she gave no details of what exactly this “evaluating” meant, when asked if the US would continue pushing for a two-state solution, she replied, “Yes, absolutely.”
Shortly before Psaki spoke, her White House colleague Joshua Earnest, while speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Cleveland, scolded Netanyahu for his comments on Election Day, encouraging his supporters to vote by saying the Arab voters were going to the polls en masse.

“The US and this administration are deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Israeli-Arab citizens,” he stated. “It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy, and an important part of what binds the US and Israel together.”

The administration could very well have downplayed both of Netanyahu’s comments and given them some context, saying they were made in the heat of a very close and nasty election campaign. That they chose not to do so – but rather decided to highlight those comments – indicates the direction things are headed.

And one of those directions appears to be US support for a UN Security Council resolution designed to lay out the principles of a two-state solution; something Jerusalem has long opposed. While Washington has until now given Israel diplomatic cover on that matter, following Netanyahu’s one-word reply – “Indeed” – when asked whether as prime minister, a Palestinian state will not emerge, holes may now start to show up in that cover.

So much for turning over a new leaf, or starting off on the right foot.

The signal that the Obama administration sent out within hours of Netanyahu’s resounding victory is that it will not be cutting the new Netanyahu government any slack; none at all. And the Europeans, far less understanding of Israel’s concerns and sensitivities than Washington, will obviously follow that lead and act in kind.

THAT IS ONE part of the equation that emerged from Tuesday’s election: Israel will face what is likely to be unprecedented diplomatic heat over the next couple of months, as the Palestinians step up their diplomatic warfare in the diplomatic arena, and the US administration – belly full of Netanyahu – will put up a much less robust defense of Israel.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that with the 2016 US presidential election soon upon us, the shelf life of this new reality is limited.

Already engaged with the Republicans in a bruising battle over the Iran nuclear talks, it is questionable whether Obama will want to pile it on – perhaps alienating some strongly pro-Israel Democratic legislators – by coming down too heavily on the side of the Palestinians.

And, as was pointed out in a Foreign Policy article on Wednesday, as the 2016 presidential race kicks into high gear, the Democratic Party’s nominee would likely urge the White House to avoid a full-throttle confrontation with Israel, thereby antagonizing the party’s Israel supporters. A very public confrontation with the Jewish state would not only be bad for Democratic party fund-raising, but could also be bad politics if the 2016 race turns out to be a close one, and pro-Israel voters will be needed to win swing states like Florida and Ohio.

But there is also another side to the equation that emerged Tuesday: The Israeli public, when it went to the polls, knew all of the above.

The public knew very well of the tensions with Obama, and what another Netanyahu term would do to ties with his administration. The public knew very well that the EU may possibly level sanctions again settlement products. The country knew very well that Netanyahu could deepen Israel’s isolation, energize the Palestinians to redouble their diplomatic campaign, and give the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement more ammunition and momentum.

Yet the country still went to ballot box and voted for Netanyahu and the parties on the Right.

The Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni held out a promise of an Israel that would once again be accepted in the world, that would not have to dwell alone, that would be respected in the world’s capitals because it would take the diplomatic initiative.

The country either didn’t believe the message, didn’t think it was possible, or a little of both.

WHEN EVALUATING this week’s election results, it is important to widen the lens and look at longer-term trends. And the longer trends show that the Left has not won an election in this country since Ehud Barak in 1999.

The country has changed dramatically since then – both demographically and in terms of outlook. Demographically, the numbers of those making up the core constituencies of the Right – the religious, the immigrants, those living in the periphery – have grown; while the urban, secular, Ashkenazi numbers making up the Jewish Left have not kept pace.

And in terms of outlook, the terrorism unleashed by the second intifada – followed by mini-wars in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-2009 and 2014) – and endless rockets and missile attacks all over the country have had a huge impact.

Israelis feel insecure. This is not made-up, it’s not hype, it’s not phony or fear-mongering. It’s real, and it comes from kids getting kidnapped and murdered, rockets falling into living rooms, and passersby getting stabbed. To understand Israel circa 2015 is to understand that insecurity; and to understand why the country votes as it does is also to understand that insecurity.

To try to combat those insecurities with talk about economic security, diplomatic security or peace negotiations just doesn’t resonate – and it hasn’t resonated since 1999.

To talk to the public using the same language used in 1999, before the intifada; or even in 2009, before the Arab Spring and the titanic changes in the region, does not work. The country has changed; the country’s mentality has changed.

Do people want peace, even people on the Right? Certainly (though there are vastly different ideas of what it is worth to sacrifice to get that peace). Do they think it is possible right now, in this neighborhood, with a weak man at the head of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; and with Gaza ruled by Hamas, which just a few months ago was busy burrowing tunnels to attack Israeli communities nearby? No.

Using slogans from a different era holding out the prospects of negotiations toward a two-state solution just doesn’t cut it in a country where so many people – because of what they have themselves experienced and seen – feel that train has long ago left the station.

Herzog and Livni tried to frame the campaign as one between hope and fear. They could provide hope, Netanyahu only fear.

But the problem is that Israelis live here – here – in the real Middle East. And when they hear Netanyahu talking about the threat from Iran, the threats of a region completely unhinged, the threats of terrorists wielding knives, guns or rockets, they don’t see him as a maniac from another planet, but as someone who is actually reading the intelligence briefings and looking out the window.

They think he is telling the truth. Those seen as crazy are those promising peace for withdrawal, or giving up land for favor in the eyes of the world.

“The people went to bed hoping for change, and woke up with a Netanyahu government,” read a curious headline over an Haaretz op-ed piece online on Wednesday.

Curious because it was the people who went to bed hoping for change, it turns out, who went to the polls earlier in the day and voted for the Netanyahu government.

Why? Because they live here, in the middle of the real Middle East, not an idealized or fantasized one, but the real Middle East, the one currently engulfed in flames.
They voted for Netanyahu because after nine years of experience with him, knowing well his pluses and minuses, they believe he can keep those flames at bay, even if he alienates some friends in the process.

And if he does alienate friends in the process, and there are economic and diplomatic prices to pay, the country said on Tuesday it feels those prices could – and even should – be borne.

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