Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel snatched victory out of what pollsters had predicted would be a shock defeat by ending his campaign with a rejection of a two-state solution for the 67-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by raising an alarm over Arab-Israeli voters that many condemned as racist and by promising to continue building settlements in annexed East Jerusalem in defiance of international law.
The Israeli electorate gave the country’s political strongman, Benjamin Netanyahu, a measured victory on March 17, ensuring his Likud Party 30 of the 120 seats in the Knesset and opening up the possibility for him to become prime minister for a fourth term.
Netanyahu defeated a challenge from the center-left Zionist Union, headed by Isaac Herzog, who pledged to relaunch peace negotiations with the Palestinians and mend relations with the Obama administration. The Zionist Union gained 24 seats. Herzog ruled out participation in a national-unity government with Netanyahu and will join the Knesset in opposition.
David Neuhaus, S.J., an Israeli who is an astute observer of the political and social situation in Israel, called the outcome “less a vote of support for Netanyahu than an expression of despair.” He explained, “Many Israelis voted for Netanyahu, not because they trust him, but because they felt that there was no choice. Mr. Herzog is perceived as without experience and without charisma.”
Father Neuhaus pointed out that 21 seats, a large percentage of the vote, “went to two parties that are largely without a political vision regarding the central issues that face the country,” and that the Zionist Union’s campaign “focused not on the real issues [West Bank occupation and relations with the Palestinians, the economy] but on petty attacks on Mr. Netanyahu, his wife and the Likud party. The election results express the sense of frustration that many feel.”
Father Neuhaus did, however, perceive some positive outcomes of the election. “The road ahead is not facilitated by the elections,” he said, “but they do help clarify where we stand right now, and at least this clarity should help those interested in promoting justice and peace move ahead. At least some of the illusions and false hopes have been dissolved in the aftermath of the election results.”
Israelis had a hard look at the prime minister’s “anti-democratic” tendencies and his disinterest in pursuing a two-state solution that could lead to peace, according to Father Neuhaus. He expects that the opposition efforts within the Knesset against Likud coalition policies will therefore probably be strong.
Father Neuhaus added, “For those who believe that the only way to change the reality in Israel/Palestine is through international pressure, the election results are certainly a clear indication that the time has come to exert this pressure.”
Father Neuhaus suggested that with the curtain pulled back on Likud’s intentions, “the opposition within [Israel] can now unite with those in the Jewish Diaspora who are concerned about the rise of extremism and racism in Israel, and more importantly with the international community, to show the Israeli government the consequences of possible disastrous choices.”
The prime minister’s scorched earth strategy toward the end of the campaign has probably further damaged his already testy relationship with the Obama administration. Father Neuhaus wonders if the Americans—and European Union peace negotiation partners—are likely to push back more strongly against Netanyahu’s policies in the election’s aftermath. “Up until now, Israel has been able to oppose the two-state solution, build settlements and restrict the Palestinians on every level without any real consequences,” he said. “Israel must not be allowed to hurtle along this road to suicide with the international community remaining silent.”