It’s no secret there is little love lost between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration. If you need proof just look at Netanyahu’s past tense history with the White House. Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress enraged the White House and critics of the hawkish Israeli government. A government that could have come toppling down and been replaced by a centrist, left leaning government domestically but no less hawkish on foreign policy.
Like much of the industrialized world, Israeli has been struggled under the weight of a continually sluggish economy. Netanyahu’s Likud Party attempted to paint the election as a referendum on his foreign policy and the results suggest they succeeded. Despite preelection polls shows Likud falling three to five seats behind the Zionist Union Party Likud earned 30 seats in the Knesset to ZU’s 24.
But despite the victory it is important to understand that Israel’s system is vastly different from the US’s. Israel operates under a parliamentary system and they have a multitude of political parties that can gain seats in the Knesset (their version of our Congress). Even if Likud had fallen behind Zionist Union once the votes were tallied they could have form a coalition government assuming they can get a coalition of 61 seats (Knesset has 120). Also important to understand is unlike in some other parliamentary democracies, Israelis don’t vote for a specific geographic constituency: Rather, they vote for a slate of candidates represented by a party or coalition of parties.
In the run-up to the election the mood of the Israeli public could easily be described as disgruntled. Scandals plagued the Likud coalition government, the cost of living has soared and ethnic tensions between Orthodox Jews, secularists, and Palestinian Jews have increased. The continuing issue of settlement has yet to be resolved as well. The surge in the polls by the Zionist Union Party right before the election reflected such a trend. But those that showed up to vote were quite different from what the polls had indicated.
So how did Netanyahu pull it off? And how did ZU blow it? Simply put, Netanyahu successfully made the campaign a referendum on his foreign policy and took a scorched earth approach to win as many hawkish Israeli votes as he could.
His speech in the US Congress was just the start. Soon after he came home he promised no Palestinian state would be created and supported the idea of more settlements. The results speak for themselves. Likud dominated in predominately traditional areas of the country. Netanyahu’s move also might have benefited right leaning parties likely to join a new coalition government.
The Zionist Union party did not so much blow it as they simply were outflanked. They did not take on Netanyahu’s scorched earth tactics and allowed the Arab Alliance, a coalition of Arab Israeli parties, to eat into their minority support. The result was a drop in support on election day.
Unsurprisingly, this promises to continue an antagonistic relationship between the Obama administration and Israeli government. Of course, this assumes Netanyahu can forge a coalition government though odds are good he can with nationalist and right-wing parties.
Yet, President Reuven Rivlin said after the election results were mostly in, “I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future.” Needless to say, the idea that ZU and Likud join together to create a unity government is far from likely.
Because of the multitude of parties involved one party may get to play kingmaker. That party, Kulanu — Hebrew for “All of Us, is headed by Moshe Kahlon, a popular former Likud minister who broke away from Netanyahu. Kahlon is generally right leaning but could be swung to support a ZU coalition government. However, it is likely Kahlon will join a Likud government.
The White House issued a murky and lukewarm reaction which is not surprising considering their issues with Netanyahu. Congress Republicans could barely hide their glee. Regardless of these results however the relationship between DC and Israel is unlikely to be friendly over the next two years.