It still is not clear who will be Israel’s next prime minister, but the winner of last week’s vote is plain: Israel’s right will now pace the country’s politics. The violence and insecurity of daily life pushed Israeli voters toward hardline solutions to national security. They have tired of promises of peace that are quickly broken and uncertainty about the reliability of their negotiating partner.
No matter who emerges as Israel’s next leader, he or she will govern a fractious majority, a bitterly divided country and face a hostile and unpredictable security environment.
Kadima, a centrist party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, “won” last week’s vote, taking 28 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, besting the rightwing Likud Party by one seat. Unfortunately, Kadima and its allies on the left can claim only 56 seats; a rightwing coalition, with Likud at its core, would hold 64. Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who now heads Likud, has said that he prefers a grand coalition with Kadima and his traditional rival — and sometimes partner — on the left, Labor, which is headed by Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barack.
Mr. Netanyahu is best known for his fiery opposition to peace talks, support for the expansion of Israeli settlements and call for maximalist foreign policy. He has said he will take out an Iranian nuclear capability. It is hard to see what common ground he shares with Kadima and Labor, other than a determination to safeguard Israel and a desire for power. Some insist that Mr. Netanyahu is one of the few Israeli politicians who could secure a peace deal with the Palestinians — much like only former U.S. President Richard Nixon could break the ice with China — but his record shows little inclination to make the essential compromises that would provide the foundation of an enduring peace with the Palestinians or Syria.
The big winner in last week’s vote was the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), which increased its representation in Parliament from 11 seats to 15, making it the third-largest party and its leader, Mr. Avigdor Lieberman, king maker.
While Mr. Lieberman’s ultranationalist views plant him firmly on the right end of Israel’s political spectrum, specific policies make him anathema to Likud. Two issues are especially corrosive of that relationship. The first is Mr. Lieberman’s secular outlook and his support for civil authority, which antagonize the ultra-religious parties that are part of Likud’s natural constituency. During the campaign, the spiritual leader of one small religious party said that anyone who supported Mr. Lieberman was “helping Satan.”
The second issue concerns settlements and control of the West Bank. The maximalists in Likud and those who seek a “Greater Israel” want to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and undermine Palestinian authority in that area. Mr. Lieberman argues that Arabs, who account for 20 percent of Israel’s population, are a fifth column that threatens the existence of the state. For him, the solution is to expel those Arabs and trade the land where they live for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In other contexts, that is called ethnic cleansing.
No matter who gets the nod to cobble together a government — and the horse trading is likely to be dismaying — the prime minister must confront two grim realities. The first is that Israel remains deeply divided but suspicions now prevail over hope and voters are clearly tired of and skeptical about the prospects for peace. Any moderate government will be vulnerable on the right — and Mr. Netanyahu remembers that he last fell from power when his allies on that flank deserted him.
The second problem is that Israel’s negotiating partners are just as divided. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas is losing support among his remaining constituencies. Blame corruption, inefficiency or the inability to make progress with the Israelis: Whatever the reason, Mr. Abbas has little credibility in the eyes of Palestinians or Israelis. For its part, Hamas has made no commitment to peace; it makes and breaks ceasefires with ease. The divisions in Israel fuel doubts in Palestinian minds about Tel Aviv’s seriousness about making peace while undermining Israel’s own peacemakers. This vicious cycle of distrust has taken on a life of its own.
The next prime minister must factor in one more player: U.S. President Barack Obama. He has pledged to reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy in the region, and no Israeli leader can afford to disregard his thinking. Mr. Obama’s desire for negotiations and progress toward a settlement make a rightwing, rejectionist coalition problematic. But the weakness of the government in Tel Aviv and among the Palestinians means that neither side can make and deliver on the hard choices that would constitute a peace deal. The status quo looks set to endure.