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Israel’s election and the agenda-setting illusion

While the next government sets out to tackle internal Israeli matters, its fate will be determined in Ramallah and Washington

Last week’s general election in Israel has served to remind the world and, importantly, the Israelis themselves, that Israel is not a right-wing theocracy doomed to self-destruction. While Israel’s detractors and not a few of Israel’s beleaguered liberals fretted about the inevitable strengthening of the religious right, the voters actually reduced what was a 10-seat right-wing advantage in the previous Knesset to a virtual tie between the two major blocs. The psychological effect of this cannot be underestimated; the gloomy, overwrought pessimism of recent years has lifted without anything actually changing.

What this election has not given Israel is a government that is any more capable of dealing with its sole existential crisis, that of finding an artful way out of its tragic entanglement in the West Bank. At least not yet.

Less than 48 hours after the polls closed, Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, had already begun coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In all likelihood, the coming coalition will comprise Likud, Yisrael Beytenu (still two separate parties, though they ran on a combined list), and Yesh Atid, together with some combination of religious and centrist parties.

The coalition will be built on the fantasy that it alone will retain the power of setting the agenda, and it will fall when this fantasy becomes self-evidently untenable. The duration of that fantasy might just be long enough for far-reaching and impressive legislative achievements on a host of pressing social issues, and it might not. You just can’t control when you wake up from a pleasant dream.

Both the election campaign and the post-election coalition negotiations conspire to create the illusion that Israeli democracy is the only game in town. And while no one can argue that the composition of the Israeli government isn’t a major factor in the regional political situation, it is but one — and its salience in the discourse and the reams of data it creates (polls, coalition possibilities, etc.) shouldn’t fool us into thinking that all the action is in the Knesset. It is not.

An alliance made to last? (photo credit: courtesy)
An alliance made to last? (photo credit: courtesy)

The situation in the West Bank remains one that simply can’t last, and things that can’t last generally don’t. When that crisis erupts, no one will be impressed at how solid and constructively ambiguous the internal Israeli “consensus” is. Tough decisions will have to be made that will inevitably drive part of the Netanyahu-Lapid coalition away.

It’s pleasing to think that a new center-right coalition will pass crucial legislation on matters of state and religion, education, the draft, and welfare before that happens — as it is mildly jarring to think they might ram in an ill-considered electoral reform in the same period — but ultimately, the timetable will be determined as much in Ramallah and Washington and by the same kind of historical accidents that only seem inevitable in retrospect.

In other words, the new coalition will be operating under the constraints of two ticking clocks whose settings can’t be accurately calculated or controllably programmed. The first will be for a legislative agenda on which there is either already a consensus or for which, finally and after years of division, there is today room for nimble compromise. The second countdown is to an inevitable eruption on the West Bank and the mounting international push-back on any Israeli reaction.

In the conflagrations of the recent decade in Lebanon and Gaza, Israel managed, despite vocal opposition in international public opinion, to secure support from nearly all the relevant governments and a broad understanding of its right to self-defense in the face of attacks across its sovereign borders. Violence on the West Bank will occur in the one context where Israel enjoys almost no support and very little understanding or patience from even its closest allies.

The Netanyahu-Lapid coalition will presumably have just enough moderates in it to put a stop to the illiberal legislation of the previous Knesset, while keeping outside a substantial enough contingent of the center-left so that when it does ultimately fall apart there will be a credible, legitimate, non-radical alternative to confront the right in the next elections free from responsibility for the situation — and it will need to move only two or three seats in its direction to assume power afterward.

About the Author
Shany Mor recently finished his doctorate at Oxford University. Prior to that, he served as a Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council. He is currently a Contributing Editor at The Tower Magazine.