Early legislative elections in Israel on April 9 have not changed the country’s political landscape. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been reelected for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term and will soon exceed the late David Ben-Gurion’s record of 13 years and four months in office. His Likud with 35 seats will be supported by several religious parties on the right to give him a working majority of 65 in the 120-seat Knesset. This result reflects three important facts of contemporary Israeli politics.
The first is that Netanyahu continues to enjoy a high approval rating, regularly exceeding 50 percent among Jewish voters. Allegations of corruption and breach of trust have not dented his popularity. Benny Gantz, the former chief of Israel’s general staff, and his newly formed blue-and-white centrist alliance have also won 35 seats, but they do not have the coalition-building capacity. At age 59, Gantz is ten years younger than Netanyahu, and at six feet looks like a general from central casting. During the campaign he nevertheless appeared to lack the veteran’s stamina and seemed tired, almost resigned at times. In the end Gantz was unable to challenge Netanyahu’s ability to project himself as the indispensable guardian of Israel’s security in a dangerous world and hostile neighborhood.
President Donald Trump has helped the Israeli leader in that endeavor, by abrogating the nuclear deal with Iran, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and by accepting the annexation of Golan Heights as fait accompli in the middle of the Israeli campaign. Interestingly the Russians were also keen to see Netanyahu reelected, as became obvious when Vladimir Putin hosted him in Moscow only five days before the election. They tacitly tolerate periodic Israeli bombing of Iranian targets in Syria, while Netanyahu has quietly accepted Russia’s presence in Syria as a permanent feature of the strategic landscape.
The second important fact is that the Israeli electorate has moved to the right. Apart from two Arab lists, only two parties remain on the left, Meretz and Labor, with just ten seats between them. By contrast there are several groups besides Likud on the right, which have offered a range of ideologically driven messages with two key themes in common: no two-state solution, no land for peace. Their supporters form a significant minority of Israelis who care more for the Jewish character of their state than for its democratic credentials, and who now control the balance of political power.
Third and finally, most Israelis do not believe in the prospect of a lasting accord with their Arab neighbors —and they do not see this lack of progress as a pressing problem. Over a quarter-century has passed since the signing of the first Oslo Accord at the White House and the peace process is dead. It has created the appearance of autonomy for the Palestinians while making the Israeli occupation de facto permanent and almost cost-free. During the campaign Netanyahu talked of annexing the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, which have doubled in size over the past decade, which was just what his likely coalition partners wanted to hear.
We are yet to see Trump’s secret plan to resolve the Israeli-Arab dispute, which his son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly engineering. Right now, it is unimaginable this Administration will produce a package based on an all-round compromise. The election will embolden Netanyahu to seek maximalist outcomes, possibly allowing Arab-financed economic projects for Palestinians provided that Israeli control of occupied territory is ensured in perpetuity. However, Palestinians will certainly reject Kushner’s “deal of the century” if it excludes sovereign statehood and remains fixated on Israeli security concerns. That could prompt Netanyahu to proceed with the annexation of some settlements, starting with the eastern suburbs of Jerusalem.
It is not in the American interest to promote a peace plan which is inherently flawed and unlikely to be successfully applied. Trump’s Middle East policy, which has amounted to unqualified support for Netanyahu’s objectives, at least has the advantage of clarity and consistency. Even if Israel is eventually recognized by its Arab neighbors in a future peace package, the legacy of Islamic movements will be that a growing segment of the Palestinian opinion—especially in Gaza and among the young—is unlikely to accept the Jewish state’s existence.
The American interest includes the continued existence of the State of Israel, on geopolitical rather than emotional, moral, or Biblical grounds. It should promote a settlement that would remove the constant threat to Israel’s existence from its Arab neighbors. It would be both disingenuous and counterproductive for Washington, however, to pretend that it can act right now as an impartial, honest broker.