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National Security & Defense

How Much Does Netanyahu’s Big Win Really Matter?

Benjamin Netanyahu on election day in Israel (Lior Mizrahi/Getty)

Israelis are waking up to the news that not only were the prognostications of a Netanyahu defeat wrong, but that the exit polls showing his party, Likud, and the opposition Zionist Union neck-and-neck at 27 seats each (in the 120-seat Knesset) were wrong too. With 95 percent of the votes officially tallied, Likud has won 29 seats in the Knesset, with Zionist Union gaining only 24. Likud thus emerges strengthened. 

It is a sweeping, unambiguous victory for Netanyahu, who is now certain to be the next prime minister. The question is what sort of coalition he will put together. As Elliott Abrams notes, Netanyahu can either form a national-unity government of Labor and Likud, or seek another coalition of center-right and religious parties. But his last right-wing coalition fall apart in December because of friction with the leader of the Yesh Atid party (Yair Lapid) and that party dropped from 19 to 11 seats in the new Knesset, so Yesh Atid is almost certainly out. That makes the other centrist party, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, one to watch, but that right-wing-coalition possibility, of Likud, Kulanu, and the religious parties, will be quite beholden to the religious parties. That could generate a lot of opposition against the coalition within Israel a time that Israel faces historic challenges — challenges perhaps best met with a unity government.

With the Islamist tide rising, and Iran everywhere in the ascendant and on the verge of being allowed to keep its nuclear weapons program, the years ahead will be dangerous ones for Israel. In these circumstances, Israeli foreign policy has become largely de-politicized. Nearly 90 percent of Israelis — basically the entire Jewish population of Israel​ — supported the fearsome pummeling Netanyahu gave Hamas last summer. A recent poll shows that more than 70 percent of Israelis oppose Obama’s looming surrender to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. And while Israelis may aspire to a future of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, that vision while have to wait for another era. The results of the Clinton era “peace process” (namely the Al-Aqsa intifada of 2000–2003) and of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal (namely the rise of Hamas) have demonstrated plain as day that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank now would be suicide.

In that sense, the Israeli elections are important chiefly inside Israel, for domestic Israeli issues. Almost no national-security issue is likely to be much affected by the outcome of these elections. To be sure, as Eli Lake and Josh Rogin point out, a Labor victory would have put Obama in a delicate position. Unlike the 1990s, Labor’s position on national-security issues is almost indistinguishable from the Israeli right wing, but Obama can’t afford to treat Labor the way he has treated Netanyahu. Beyond that, the shape of the next government could affect Israel’s foreign relations: A national-unity government will have stronger footing for a robust foreign policy, whereas a fragile coalition will be more crimped. 

But the geopolitical situation surrounding Israel at the moment makes personalities and elections almost irrelevant, because the range of options available to any Israeli government is so severely constrained. Israel has settled into a long-term strategy of reactive perimeter defense. Its leaders are in the same situation as its young soldiers, watching nervously from the ramparts as Israel’s enemies grow stronger, biding their time. Israel can’t do anything to change any aspect of the geopolitical forces bearing down on it — not the situation in Syria, not the ascendancy of Iran and Hezbollah, not the rise of the Islamic State, not even the situation with the Palestinians.

If their memoirs are to be believed, Clinton-administration officials would get depressed when conservatives won elections in Israel, and there are probably a lot of long faces among Obama-administration officials right now. But they should look at the bright side — at least they’ve proven that American presidents can influence Israeli elections. Clinton and Obama have done more than any two people alive to weaken the Labor party and push the entire Israeli electorate to the right.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University School of Law and a former defense-policy adviser at the Pentagon and in the U.S. Senate.


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