The recent Israeli Knesset elections surprised the world by returning Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party to power. The resounding win put Netanyahu on the path to becoming the longest serving PM in Israeli history and caused some consternation and disappointment both in the White House and Brussels.
There are two main reasons for Bibi’s unexpected win. Demographics and plain old chutzpah. The most hawkish groups in Israel are the Sephardic Jews whose ancestors fled Muslim countries such as Morocco, Yemen, and Egypt, and Russian Jews. While some Sephardic Jews voted for the sectarian, ultra-Orthodox Shas party, notorious for its parasitic approach to Israel’s welfare state and unprincipled position on nearly every issue, and some Russian Jews voted for Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beytenu (Our Home is Israel) rightwing Russian-dominated party, most Sephardic and Russian Jews voted for Likud. All of the relatives and friends that I spoke to Israel voted for Netanyahu, except for a combat veteran of the Lebanese security zone who now works as an engineer in Haifa. He voted for Naftali Bennett’s small rightwing, settler-based Jewish Home, but still preferred to see Bibi as PM.
The second, perhaps more important reason for Bibi’s win is his humiliation of Barack Obama achieved with the help of John Boehner and congressional Republicans. By coming to Washington uninvited and against the wishes of the White House and then roundly bashing Obama’s approach to Iran and its nuclear program, Bibi put on a winning performance for his tough, rightwing settler-Sephardic-Russian base. A shrewd and ruthless political operator like Bibi knew that by smacking Barack Obama around, he would come across both as a indomitable strongman and a smart politician. A gamble that paid off enormously.
What kind of governing coalition can one expect after Netanyahu’s triumph? There are several options. First, there is the more centrist, secular coalition. Likud (30 seats) would join with Liberman’s (6 seats) and Bennett’s (8 seats) parties on its right flank to cement the support of settlers and Russians. Then it would need the support of the two secular liberal parties, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (11 seats) and Moshe Kahlon’s dark horse, upstart Kulanu (10 seats). Altogether, this would give Netanyahu a comfortable 65/120 seats with which to govern. By keeping out the political forces of hidebound, parasitic ultra-Orthodoxy such as Shas and UTJ, Netanyahu would be able to address such issues as the introduction of non-religious marriage to Israel and the drafting of yeshiva students into the army. On the other hand, Lapid and Kahlon are to the left of Netanyahu on foreign policy and could be clamoring for at least, an unofficial understanding with the Palestinians, which could mean a settlement building freeze. This would greatly irk Netanyahu and his rightwing base, since he already promised not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The second coalition option would be a government, which included both the rightwing Our Home is Israel and Jewish Home parties with the Likud for a total of 44 seats. Then, the two ultra-Orthodox party, Shas (7 seats) and United Torah Judaism (the less hawkish, Ashkenazi version of Shas) with its 6 seats would come into the government. To these 57 seats, could be added the 10 seats of Kulanu, which is not aggressively secular like Yesh Atid and is more desperate for a place in the government. This coalition would cement the pro-ultra-Orthodox status quo of past decades and without Lapid’s moderating presence, would allow Netanyahu to continue the policies of his past term.
In any case, one thing is just about certain. There will be no final settlement with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, something that most Israelis are fine with. The conflict will be frozen, with occasional flareups here and there. As for Bibi’s relationship with the White House, Obama got the message loud and clear and with his lame duck year fast approaching, he will not want to jeopardize the chances of the Democratic candidate by taking on Bibi.