Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Only in Israel can a politician lose by winning. It seems, as I write this, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ticket -- his Likud party, plus Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu -- will have won about 31 Knesset seats in today’s election, which would put it comfortably ahead of its nearest competitor.
But the results, if early exit polls are to be believed, mean that Netanyahu is no longer King of Israel. He lost votes to his right, to the pro-settlement Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, and he lost centrist voters (those who wish for, among other things, a two-state solution with the Palestinians, without quite believing it is possible) to the Yesh Atid party of the former television broadcaster Yair Lapid, who is the real story of this campaign.
Lapid is now a kingmaker. As Israel moves into the next, excruciating period of the election -- the jockeying to construct a governing coalition -- it is Lapid’s party, which appears to have won about 19 seats, that will go a long way toward deciding whether Netanyahu rules a far-right coalition (made up of ultra-Orthodox parties and Jewish Home) or a broad center-right one.
There is also a chance that the center-left could build its own governing coalition. The Labor Party, which was allegedly dead and buried, seems to have resurrected itself. Tzipi Livni, the left-leaning former foreign minister, appears to have taken seven seats for the party known as the Movement, and the left-wing party Meretz also seems to have done surprisingly well. The Kadima Party, which won more votes than any other in the last election, has disappeared entirely.
As of this writing, it seems that Netanyahu will still be prime minister. If I were betting, I’d say he’ll end up leading a coalition that includes Bennett and Lapid. (Of course, it’s foolish to bet on the outcomes of Israeli coalition-building.)
What does all this mean for Israel’s immediate future, and the future of Middle East peacemaking? Perhaps not as much as you’d expect. A look at the positions of the three key players provides some clues.
Let’s start with Netanyahu, whose signature line in this campaign was, simply, “The freezing of settlements has run its course.” In the past week, especially, Netanyahu has been running against President Barack Obama. (Some observers -- not me -- say that Netanyahu’s veiled attacks on Obama were motivated by this column.) Netanyahu had been trying to convey to the settlers and their supporters that he is the only one strong enough to resist another U.S. pressure campaign to freeze Israeli settlement-building.
A vote for Bennett’s Jewish Home, in other words, would have been a vote wasted on a naif, albeit a colonialist naif. Bennett expressed his view of Palestinian aspirations this way: “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state.” Bennett’s presence in the next coalition would necessarily dash the hopes of any self-respecting peace-processor.
Yair Lapid and his party -- a “center center” party, in Israeli parlance -- might agitate for new negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But Lapid has shifted his rhetoric since moving from journalism into politics. Two years ago, he wrote caustically about the settlers: “Four percent of the country’s residents cannot decide that they are the only ones who know what’s right.” In this campaign, though, Lapid spoke about the importance of holding onto those large settlements closest to the 1967 “Green Line,” and he spoke repeatedly about the paramount importance of Jerusalem, which he said is “the reason we are here and if we have to fight for it we will fight for it.”
A Netanyahu-Bennett-Lapid coalition would be far more likely to take bold action against another of Israel’s threats, the rise of the ultra-Orthodox, than to take on the peace process. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Haredi men don’t serve in the army and are on the public dole so that they can pursue full-time religious studies. And Haredi political parties are becoming more radical (ayatollah-like, in some ways), demanding sex segregation on public buses and generally trying to erase the line dividing synagogue from state. Lapid’s popularity is derived in large part from his stalwart stance against the privileges accrued by the ultra-Orthodox.
Belief in the efficacy of the peace process has ebbed dramatically, even among those Israelis who know that Bennett’s vision of an Israel in permanent control of the Palestinians is a formula for ruin. The weakness of the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank; the recalcitrance of Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip; and the Arab Spring uprisings, which have left Syria in chaos and Egypt in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, haven’t advanced the cause of a two-state solution.
One more quote to keep in mind, this from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who said three years ago (in a statement just unearthed this month) that Muslims should “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” Statements like this, which are also often heard in Palestinian circles, give Israelis pause about pursuing compromise.
The next coalition -- even if it is center-right, rather than hard-right -- is going to have a hard time selling a revitalized peace process.
(Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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