By Gianmarco Morassutti Vitale:
This is the last of a three-piece series analysing outcomes and impacts of the recent Israeli election. Last week Eddo Bar considered what impact Netanyahu’s re-election would have on Israeli security, and Jill Russell examined the potential consequences for US-Israeli relations.
Last Wednesday, Isaac Herzog, leader of the centre–left Zionist Union, conceded defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu after his party was allotted 24 seats in the Knesset – the Israeli parliament – to the Likud’s 30. In a similar fashion to the 1996 elections against Shimon Peres and the Labor party, Netanyahu’s Likud trailed behind the opposition in opinion polls but managed to secure the elections with a victory that he described as “against all odds”.
That same day, the Likud party announced that it was looking to form a coalition government with the Jewish Home party, Yisrael Beitenu, the United Torah Party, the ultra-orthodox Shas, and the centrist Kulanu.
Beyond the Likud’s victory, what really caused media uproar was Netanyahu’s declaration on Tuesday that he rejected the possibility of a Palestinian state, ultimately destroying the possibility of a two-state solution and deepening schisms in the US-Israeli relationship.
However, in order to galvanise the peace process and change decision-making in Israel, it is necessary to raise the cost of the occupation. In order to create constructive change, it is necessary to place Israel on a collision course with everyone else. Since long-standing support from the US and international partners have been critical to maintaining the status quo, a re-evaluation of the peace process might lead to a new direction and initiative. For this, Netanyahu is just the man we need; he is a polarising figure on the international stage, and his re-election will compel allies and partners to re-assess their policy towards Israel.
It is no secret that the relationship between the United States and Israel, or more specifically, with the Bibisitter himself, has been colder than it had been in the past. Netanyahu’s most recent visit to Washington DC, where he appeared before Congress to speak against an emerging nuclear deal with Iran, galvanised certain elements of the Republican party but placed him in the doghouse for the Obama administration. Netanyahu was accused of trying to bolster his election support and provide the Republican-dominated Congress with the backing to oppose the executive’s negotiations with Iran. Perhaps the decision to invite Netanyahu was motivated more by anti-Obama sentiment than an anti-Iran / pro-Israel sentiment.
Netanyahu’s outright opposition to a Palestinian state marks a decisive break from US interests in the region. Republican and Democrat administration in the past decades have implicitly desired the establishment of a Palestinian state, despite the US’s continuous support of Israel in the UN. The Prime Minister’s declaration has therefore raised some serious concerns in the current administration. According to Josh Earnest, the press secretary to the Obama administration, the US is ‘deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens’. He also added that the administration would ‘have to reassess our options going forward’. There have in fact been warnings that the US might withdraw its political support for Israel within the UN. However, military support and the security relationship will continue to be sacrosanct.
Many have dismissed Netanyahu’s abandonment of prior commitments as mere election rhetoric aimed at consolidating right-wing votes during the elections, and they aren’t wrong. According to a report from Haaretz by Or Kashti, while the Zionist Union fared better in the larger and wealthier cities, Likud won the majority of middle- and lower-class towns (64 of 77) and the support of West Bank settlements. On Thursday, two days after his electoral victory, Netanyahu had already begun to backtrack on his statements. He explained that he wasn’t divorcing the peace process but that ‘what has changed is the reality’. He said that the reality on the ground marked what was achievable and what wasn’t. ‘To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace’.
For Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist and researcher at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, Benjamin Netanyahu needs to maintain the mirage perception of a two-state solution as it allows Israel to pursue and implement a de facto, rather than de jure, one-state reality. According to certain officials, Netanyahu has previously talked about the two-state solution as lip service to coalition partners but tended to focus policy arguments on the dangerous presence of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. He has also categorically refused to address a binational state solution, preferring an ‘Israel-only’ supervision of future demilitarisation in the West Bank.
Regardless of Benjamin Netanyahu’s backtracking and attempts to clarify his statements, the White House has reaffirm its commitments to the two-state solution. Mr Earnest clarified that Netanyhu’s statement did have consequences, one of which was demonstrating that he wasn’t truly committed to the peace process and that consequently the administration would have to reassess its options and ‘re-evaluate our thinking’.
And this is why Netanyahu is – inadvertently – perfect for the long-term prospects of the peace process.
When the election results came out and it became clear that Netanyahu had won, social media platforms rang out with all sorts of disappointment and many echoed the fear that a two-state solution was finally buried. But the victory of Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu is actually a positive outcome because it is likely to harden the desire within the US and other international actors for a new process and mobilise the effort needed for it to be constructive.
Netenyahu’s divisive rhetoric during the elections and the abandonment of prior commitments for the sake of votes has demonstrated that Netanyahu is the worst kind of opportunist. This, alongside his continuous flip-flop between the possibility of negotiating a two-state solution and the categorical refusal to withdraw from the West Bank, demonstrates that Netanyahu is not a trustworthy partner and the US should refrain from being his enabler. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Durbin stated that Netanyahu has sacrificed a ‘deep and well-established cooperation’ for partisan points that would have lasting repercussions.
Netanyahu’s persona carries an important phenomenon: polarization, and it is this ability that, as Gideon Levy – a writer for Haaretz – stated, will ‘lead the United States to adopt harsh measures against Israel, for the man whom the world long ago grew sick of’.
In irregular warfare insurgent or guerrilla movements often aim at polarizing the populace, who are regarded as the critical battleground, rather than the conventional battlefield. Polarising the populace typically results in the heightened mobilisation of people and a more clear distinction of who is on whose side. In other words, polarisation shifts perceptions so that the world stops being viewed as many different shades of gray and becomes a world of black and white or “us versus them”. Netanyahu embodies this polarisation factor.
Netanyahu has come to embody the very concept of Israeli intransigence, the expansion of settlements, and the violation of Palestinian rights.
As interactions between Israelis and Palestinians has diminished and the costs of maintaining the occupied territories hasn’t risen, Israel has become comfortable with the status quo. For any kind of effective change it is necessary to alter the trajectory. If Isaac Herzog had been elected, the illusory perception of change might have lessened international pressure on Israel. A new government would have sought to reopen previously failed channels and peace negotiations would have begun without any real progress. Stagnation would be the inevitable product of a united right-wing opposition in the Knesset.
Despite being snubbed by the Obama administration, Israel continues to have deep contacts within Congress. Netanyahu’s government will probably try to ride out the division with the Obama administration until the next US presidential is elected in 2016, but if the current administration begins to act on its re-evaluations, as Earnest stated, it could spell real trouble for Netanyahu. Even if he does try to ride it out, pressure on Israel is bound to increase.
In fact, under Netanyahu’s leadership, the ‘BDS’ or ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions’ campaign against Israel by the international community has thrived. Millions of dollars have been divested from Israeli Banks and companies like SodaStream that operated in the West Bank.
Netanyahu continues to heighten tensions between allies and polarise the international community. The opposition of his government to any constructive change will mobilise international pressure and possibly the future of an entirely new peace process.
And that’s why I, for one, am glad that the Bibisitter is back.
Gianmarco Morassutti Vitale is an MA student in War Studies at King’s College London. His holds a BA in Arabic and Politics from the University of Leeds. He spent a year in Egypt during the revolution 2011 and has a particular interest in the Middle East, especially Lebanon, Hezbollah and Israel.