Netanyahu at Western Wall.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
At first glance, the election results for the 20th Knesset seem to have changed little. Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to serve as Israel’s prime minister. The Likud remains the single largest party. The government will remain predominantly right-wing, while incorporating at least one centrist party and at least one haredi party.
But in reality, much has changed. Though for some time now, successive Israeli government have tended to be decidedly right-wing (this explains Netanyahu’s success in forming the last two governments), on the eve of elections Netanyahu steered his party further to the Right, announcing that the Jews of Israel would continue to live in “all of Jerusalem and all of Judea.” He promised that, if he were returned to power, he would not facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state.
His panicked appeal was made in the wake of public opinion polls that forecast him losing the race to the Zionist Union. Netanyahu was clearly backtracking on his support in principle for a two-state solution, as detailed in his groundbreaking 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. And it seemed to work. Netanyahu succeeded in strengthening the Likud principally at the expense of the more rightwing Bayit Yehudi.
Netanyahu also resorted to base bigotry, warning in a Facebook post that a right-wing government was in danger, because “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” That an Israeli prime minister would deploy such a populist scare tactic against a large and culturally identifiable minority because he saw it as being advantageous to his campaign – and was proven right – says much about the sentiments of a large segment of Israeli Jews toward a segment of Israeli citizens who make up over 20 percent of the population.
Netanyahu’s rhetoric – particularly his apparent reneging on support for a two-state solution – will potentially have negative ramifications for Israeli-US relations, particularly with an Obama administration that has made clear its desire to see Israelis and Palestinians hammer out their differences through negotiations. Given Netanyahu’s relations with US President Barack Obama already at a nadir, his revelation rejecting a two-state solution is sure to exacerbate the situation even more. Netanyahu will now have to articulate some alternative plan for managing the conflict with the Palestinians. Improving Palestinians’ living conditions and implementing reforms that help spur economic growth must be a part of any such plan.
Another major change is the almost certain incorporation of Shas and United Torah Judaism into the government coalition. The absence of these two parties in the previous government perhaps facilitated its single greatest success – the ending of ultra-Orthodox men’s entitlement to opt out of military service, while their less-observant peers were obligated to serve three years in the IDF.
With the return of Shas and UTJ, there is a real danger that, not only will ultra-religious men be allowed once again to skirt military service, they will thereby succeed in resisting integration into mainstream Israeli society – particularly the labor market. Transforming the fast-growing, overwhelmingly poor haredi population into an economically productive segment of society, that contributes to economic expansion instead of being a drain on it, is one of the main challenges facing the State of Israel in the next decade.
Also of concern is an expected resurgence of attempts to weaken the autonomy and independence of the Supreme Court. The Likud’s Yariv Levin, a longtime proponent of increasing the Knesset’s power vis-à-vis the court, is already talking about changing the judge appointment process, so that lawmakers will be able to decide who becomes a Supreme Court justice.
Netanyahu has in the past opposed encroachment on the court’s autonomy, but now, with the right-wing constituency so integral to his support base, Netanyahu might be less likely to confront Levin and his supporters.
A strong, sometimes overly activist Supreme Court is a price worth paying to avoid a situation in which governments that are so heavily dominated by right-wing parties trample the rights of minorities in a “tyranny of the majority.”
So, while it may appear that little has changed since the last elections, this is only an illusion. When it is dispelled, it reveals a new, potentially volatile era of deteriorating relations with the US administration, a reversal of positive steps toward the integration of the haredi population into Israeli society, and new attacks on the autonomy of the Supreme Court – not to mention resuming the search for an elusive peace with our neighbors.