The Incredible Shrinking Bibi Netanyahu

by Yossi Melman in Tel Aviv

Sure, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu has been reelected, but his political clout has been significantly shrunken by Israeli voters.   His combined electoral list — his own Likud party, united with Yisrael Beteinu (Israel is Our Home) — lost nearly 30% of its seats, compared with the last parliament. 

Here is a conclusion of wide-ranging international importance: The chance that Netanyahu will feel strong enough to order an Israeli military strike on Iran is now nearly zero.  Despite what many pundits said — reacting to Netanyahu’s saber-rattling in recent years — the likelihood that Israel would bomb Iran was always very low.  Now it is something that he simply won’t have the popular support to do.

The Iranian nuclear threat was not, after all, the top issue during the election campaign.   Netanyahu generally hid his Iran obsession from voters during the campaign.  He also avoided mentioning the slim chances of renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The most salient results of the election are that Israeli voters showed that they despised the current crop of top politicians.  The voters seemed to be sick of Netanyahu and his tough-guy tactics in foreign affairs, matched by right-wing, rigid, “free market” economics that increased the painful gaps between the rich and the poor.  Social issues dominated the election stage.

It is true that only Netanyahu can form the next government — so he can cling to the satisfaction of remaining the prime minister — but he will have tremendous difficulties creating a consensual, solid coalition.  He will have to be a juggler to reconcile the contradicting demands and platforms of the rightwing, Orthodox, and centrist parties he would probably like inside his cabinet.

The Labor Party — which dominated Israel and its politics from the country’s finding in 1948 until Menachem Begin’s Likud scored a stunning win in 1977 — has won 15 seats, up from 13 four years ago.  Several of its candidates admit that they are sorely disappointed.  Labor is hardly a relevant force anymore.

The true winner of this election is Yair Lapid, a former TV anchorman who leads a party called Yesh Atid (There is a Future).  It is extremely impressive for a new party, led by a new politician, to win 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

The smooth-talking and good-looking Lapid seems to be a dove, speaking out in the past against the excessive political power wielded by settlers in the West Bank.  Unlike many in Netanyahu’s party, Lapid supports a two-state solution — saying Palestinians should govern themselves — but he does say Israel should negotiate a deal in which it would keep large clusters of settlements.  He also has expressed a willingness to bomb Iran, to stop that country from developing nuclear weapons; though, like most Israelis, he has suggested that his country should not do it without American support.

Unabashedly hard-line is another new politician whose party did surprisingly well: Naftali Bennett, a high-tech entrepreneur whose Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) won 11 seats.  The son of American lefties — his mother studied at Berkeley in the ’60s — Bennett found the light in Orthodox Judaism.  Behind his smile and soft-spoken demeanor are Bennett’s hard-core right-wing doctrines.  He even recommends that Israel annex most of the West Bank — in effect, to signal to the Palestinians that they will never get an independent state of their own to the west of the River Jordan.

For Bennett, the two-state solution — an independent Palestine, alongside Israel — is outdated.  He is thus against removing any Jewish settlements from the West Bank.  Settlers have become his power base.

Bibi Netanyahu can put together a coalition — especially if he draws in Yair Lapid, and Lapid so far seems quite willing to bargain for a senior cabinet post.  Yet chances are that the coalition would include only 60 or 61 mandates, barely half the Knesset.  This is a recipe for a weak government — practically political suicide — that would likely isolate Israel internationally even more.

That scenario would lead to another national election in about a year.

It seems clear, as of now, that the prime minister is — to say the least — less strong than before.  Whittled away on the right (Bennett) and the center (Lapid), Netanyahu rules from a thinner core of strength.  To do something as bold as bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would require a strong core.   He doesn’t even have Ehud Barak, the former general and prime minister, as his defense minister — as Barak has retired from politics.

So Netanyahu does not have what it would take to bomb Iran.

The Obama Administration, no fan of Netanyahu’s, will privately welcome his being weaker.  But President Obama is still on the record as saying it’s unacceptable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.  So now it falls to the United States to be tough with the Iranians: convening talks and trying hard to persuade them to stop their nuclear work, maintaining the unprecedented sanctions already damaging Iran’s economy, tightening them with even more multinational support, and — if necessary — preparing the American air force and missile arsenal to strike Iran.  That’s if there’s no other way to stop the Iranians.

In this space we always wrote that it’s more likely that the United States — and not Israel — may strike Iran at some point.

In the meantime, in the spirit of Spies Against Armageddon, Israeli espionage continues to watch Iran intently so as to find ways to sabotage and delay the nuclear program.


January 24, 2013

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