So Netanyahu won the elections.
Israeli politics are confusing. I finally understand the way Israeli elections work: the different parties, the voting, the threshold, seat assignment, ministries, the Knesset, coalitions, and the president’s role in all of this. And I know enough to say that between Netanyahu and Herzog, Netanyahu is the better choice.
I say he is the better choice. I do not say he is a good choice, the clear choice, or the right choice. Because in this election and Israel’s current situation, there is no clear-cut answer.
Netanyahu has come under a lot of criticism recently, most notably for his speech to the US Congress about the threat of a nuclear Iran and for his “flaky” statements about his feelings towards a two-state solution. From within Israel, there have been complaints that Netanyahu is neglecting to address the socioeconomic issues facing the country, and for the first time, Israelis are more concerned about socioeconomic issues than security issues, and so the Zionist Union party became more and more popular because of their focus on economic and social issues.
So on the one hand, there is Netanyahu. During his terms as prime minister, peace talks and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority plummeted because of Netanyahu’s staunch attitude and preconditions for any peace agreement. The Israel-US relationship has suffered because of Netanyahu and Obama’s ongoing feud about Iran’s nuclear programs and attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as prime minister, Netanyahu’s main focus has not been on making changes to deal with socioeconomic issues in Israel.
However, Netanyahu navigated Israel through Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Brother’s Keeper, which led to Operation Protective Edge. Yes, Israel suffered from these operations, as we have suffered from every operation Israel has carried out. But Israel has remained strong and, as seen especially from Protective Edge, has succeeded in crippling Hamas and making it clear that there is a zero-tolerance policy for aggression towards Israel.
This zero-tolerance policy and Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel’s security come first is why he refused to agree to the peace agreements mediated by John Kerry and other US officials. Netanyahu stated from the time he became prime minister that he would honor the Oslo Accords but would refuse to return Israel to its 1967 borders. In his Bar-Ilan Speech in 2009, Netanyahu DID state that he would consider a two state solution, but only with non-negotiable conditions including complete demilitarization of the Palestinian state, an undivided Jerusalem belonging to Israel, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and no Palestinian right of return.
The night before elections, Netanyahu stated that there would be no two-state solution under his leadership. It is possible that Netanyahu only said this to gain more votes. But it has been six years since the Bar-Ilan speech, and a lot has changed; maybe Netanyahu now would oppose the solution he proposed years ago. Or maybe, Netanyahu is acknowledging that the PA will never accept his conditions for a two-state solution, and he will not cave into pressure for a two-state solution if it will in any way jeopardize Israel’s security.
This attitude, which is arguably necessary and even admirable, has contributed to the deterioration of Israel’s relations with the USA. Kerry’s embarrassment as a result of the failure of the peace talks did not reflect well on the Obama administration; the name-calling and insults between government officials only escalated things further. Other sources of tension in the relationship include Jonathan Pollard and the US’s criticisms of settlement-building in Israel. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress criticizing the current proposal for an agreement with Tehran over their nuclear program, and Obama’s decision to boycott the speech pushed the already-strained boundaries of Israel and America’s relationship.
Meanwhile, Israelis are becoming more and more concerned with the high cost of living in Israel, the high poverty rates, and the current state of education. The Likud platform has failed to emphasize their concern and their plans to reform social and economic issues in Israel, which has led some Israelis to cast their vote for Herzog’s party instead. However, though it was not a priority of his campaign, Netanyahu has made many socioeconomic improvements during the last six years, including free education starting at age three, raising the minimum wage (twice), and has brought the unemployment rate down significantly. He has pledged to continue to address welfare issues, and has offered the position of Finance Minister to Moshe Kahlon, who has been productive in the past in breaking monopolies in Israel and lowering living expenses.
So with Netanyahu comes almost non-existent cooperation between Israel and the PA, a strained relationship with the US, and vague promises of economic reform that may or may not bear fruit.
And then there is Herzog.
Herzog has expressed a willingness to cooperate directly with Mahmoud Abbas and move forward with a two-state solution. He has made it clear that restoring a positive relationship with Obama and the US is of utmost priority to him. And his campaign focused more on reforming the economy and fixing domestic social and economic issues in Israel.
With Herzog’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian relationship, there is little doubt that if Herzog became prime minister, he would make a beeline for a two-state solution. It is unclear what his priorities and conditions would be for such a resolution—on the one hand, he has expressed that Israel’s security is most important, but has also criticized Netanyahu’s stubbornness against dividing Jerusalem. A Herzog-endorsed solution would probably include a divided Jerusalem, unilateral land withdrawals on Israel’s part, and an end to construction in Jerusalem and the “West Bank,” and might not include a demand for complete demilitarization of the Palestinian State, thought he has called for demilitarization of Gaza.
The fact that Herzog is so willing to work directly with Abbas is dangerous. On top of that, the fact that Herzog has not set clear conditions for a two-state solution does not reflect well on his ability to protect Israel’s security or his willingness to oppose a deal that doesn’t promise complete and long-term stability for Israel.
Herzog’s openness to resume peace talks and presumably make concessions to the PA is potentially dangerous, but also paves the way to a better relationship with the US. Herzog would be willing to go back to the negotiation table and push towards a two-state solution, which would give Kerry and the Obama administration a chance to redeem themselves from the embarrassment that resulted from the failed peace talks in 2013. Herzog did join in on the efforts to free Jonathan Pollard last year by asking Obama to be “considerate of Pollard’s medical condition,” but Pollard’s release does not seem to be a priority for him. Herzog has also expressed a willingness to freeze settlement construction, at least outside of major settlement blocs. With regard to Iran, Herzog has acknowledged that Iran is a threat, but has expressed his trust in Obama to “get a good deal.” Whether or not he considers the current deal “a good deal” is unclear.
What Herzog did make clear in his campaign is that he plans to address many social and economic issues in Israel, which is something that is becoming increasingly concerning. He has promised to make an effort to lower housing costs by enacting a “fair rent” law and reducing the costs of education and healthcare.
So had Herzog been elected, Israel would be facing a two-state solution including major land concessions and a divided Jerusalem, a repaired relationship with the White House that comes with settlement-freezes and support for Obama’s unpromising Iran deal, and more concrete promises of social reform, although whether Herzog would really be able to implement such changes is not guaranteed.
And so yes, while the repair of Israel’s relationship with the USA and all of the social and economic change that Herzog was offering are tempting and positive and different from Netanyahu’s priorities, reelecting Netanyahu was the better choice. The things Herzog was promising are things that I can only hope Netanyahu will make an effort towards achieving, albeit in a different way than Herzog would have. It’s important for Israel to repair their relationship with the USA, who at least used to be Israel’s greatest ally. The current government had expressed that they would wait until after the next American presidential election to try to fix relations; I only hope that Netanyahu can be diplomatic enough for the next two years so as not to push the relationship beyond the point of no return. Obama will not change his views, this much is clear. So it is up to Netanyahu to keep the relationship afloat. At the same time, I hope and expect Netanyahu to continue his policies regarding Iran and regarding a two-state solution, while also making more of an effort to fix socioeconomic problems within Israel.
Netanyahu has his flaws. He needs to figure out his limits in pushing the Obama administration. He needs to make clear his opinion on possibility of a two-state solution. And he needs to find a way to institute change in the social and economic situations in Israel.
But he also has his priorities straight. He knows that, bottom line, Israel’s security comes first, and he will not give up that demand. He knows that a two-state solution that doesn’t involve complete demilitarization of the Palestinian state is a threat to Israel. He knows that the current proposed deal with Iran is a bad one, and he knows that the US’s support is important when it comes to decisions in the UN. And he knows that Israel’s security is more important than America’s support of Israel’s actions. Israel has survived alone and against all odds before, and we will do it again, if need be.
Herzog doesn’t see this. He sees America as crucial to Israel’s survival. Netanyahu, on the other hand, sees only God as crucial to Israel’s survival.
With this belief, I hope Netanyahu can make the right decisions. I hope he can win back his popularity, and solve the problems facing Israel. I hope his intentions really are to protect Israel’s security and not to protect his position as prime minister. I hope he can put aside his issues with Obama and maintain at least a civil relationship with the USA, at least until 2016, because choosing a prime minister who seems to be intent on destroying Israel’s relationship with the USA doesn’t reflect well on the Israeli population.
It all comes down to this: a prime minister whose priorities are straight and who is not afraid to defend his country is a better choice than a prime minister whose main priority is to make other countries happy. Because a prime minister is responsible for protecting and representing THEIR country’s needs, not anyone else’s.
Netanyahu isn’t perfect. He isn’t the clear choice for prime minister. At this point, he might not even be a good choice. But he is the better choice.