The outcome of the Israeli elections on 17 March was a great personal victory for Binyamin Netanyahu, who had been dismissed by pundits a few days earlier as a relic of the past. Indeed, it was a double victory: not only will Netanyahu be able to form a stable right-wing government, he’ll be able to address grievances of little interest to those outside Israel.
Ever since the Six Day War in 1967, there has existed a tension between maintaining state security and addressing socio-economic concerns. Common wisdom dictated that security would always prevail. However, the social unrest of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the street to protest about the rising cost of living, seemed to change that. A new political party, Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, was created to funnel the protesters’ frustrations into mainstream politics. Lapid’s tenure as finance minister, however, produced a mixed response.
His dismissal paved the way for Moshe Kahlon, a rising star who as minister of communications had succeeded in sharply reducing the cost of mobile-phone calls – and now promises to repeat the miracle with housing costs. By giving Kahlon the finance brief and making him the housing tsar, Netanyahu is reassuring Israelis that he is attuned to their real-life aspirations.
If this stroke of political mastery were not enough, by single-handedly running a campaign of fear in the days before the election – warning that the left was about to take over – Netanyahu managed to snatch many voters from the parties that had outflanked him on the right: Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennett, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (Our Israel). The result was that, unlike in the previous government – where it was held hostage by medium-sized parties – Netanyahu’s Likud today towers over its potential coalition partners, allowing Bibi much greater control and stability.
And yet, with all due respect for domestic matters and the stability of the coalition, Netanyahu’s new government will still need to address the strategic challenges particular to Israel: the volatile Middle East, the immediate threats of Hamas and Hezbollah, nuclear Iran and the so-called peace process with the Palestinians.
Many Israelis, myself included, feel that Netanyahu has failed in dealing with each and every one of these issues. But the result of the election clearly showed that we are in a minority. That’s the beauty of democracy. It appears, then, that on all these fronts Israel will carry on as before.
The problem is that if the worst comes to the worst, on three out of the four issues there are certain military responses available. Not so with the question of Palestine. Without a bold move in this arena, Israel will eventually become one binational state, losing its Jewish identity, or its democracy, or both. Netanyahu, who during the campaign renounced his 2009 acceptance of a Palestinian state, will not have the luxury of ignoring the matter. Either he embraces the 2002 Arab League proposal for a comprehensive regional peace, or he will face growing pressure from the world community, encouraged by a frustrated President Barack Obama.
As someone who did not vote for Netanyahu, I pray that he surprises me. Not with strokes of political expertise, but with a show of statesmanship. This is what Israel desperately needs. Doing nothing, ignoring the issue, is no longer an option.