Editorials

Netanyahu wins again, but victory may be bitter

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has prevailed in a closely contested election. His fourth consecutive election victory — his fifth in total — is a historic accomplishment. The win signals continuity in the government in Tel Aviv, which bodes ill for peace prospects. Netanyahu, along with Israeli politics, has drifted steadily to the right since he returned to power a decade ago and his increasingly hard line has reduced opportunities to find common ground with Palestinians.

This week’s election was a hard-fought battle. Every ruling party faces challenges after a decade in power — voter fatigue is almost inescapable — but Netanyahu’s future has been clouded by allegations of corruption, charges he denies. The prospect of being indicted elevated the stakes for the prime minister. As long as he remains in power, Netanyahu has leverage in talks with coalition partners — although his need for protection also empowers other parties as they try to forge a government.

Likud’s fortunes have been boosted by the collapse of the traditional left parties in Israeli politics. That vacuum has been filled by the Blue and White alliance, a coalition that purports to represent all views on the political spectrum — the name is from the Israeli flag, which is blue and white — that is headed by Benny Ganz, the former chief of general staff of the Israeli Armed Forces. The alliance was officially declared only on Feb. 21.

Given that brief period of existence, its performance in the election was impressive. Blue and White won 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, against the 36 won by Likud. But Blue and White cannibalized the older parties of the left, leaving some of them unable to cross the threshold for representation in parliament. This means that Netanyahu has more allies on the right of the political spectrum with which he can form a coalition. Reuven Rivlin, president of Israel, will now consult with political leaders to see who can put together a government and announce the results next week. Ganz has declared that Netanyahu won the election, conceding the opportunity to form a government.

Netanyahu should thank U.S. President Donald Trump for the win. Strong, if not unquestioning, support of the Israeli prime minister has been a hallmark of the Trump administration. In recent weeks, Trump tweeted that Israel should claim sovereignty over the Golan Heights, land seized from Syria during the war with Arab countries in 1967, and days before the election, the U.S. government declared the Iran Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, a decision that delighted Netanyahu and his hard-line supporters. Trump had already moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, an outcome long sought by Israel’s right.

Netanyahu no doubt expects the U.S. to acquiesce to his announcement, on the eve of the vote, that Israel will annex parts of the West Bank as well. That move not only appeals to Netanyahu’s base but it also gives him leverage in coalition negotiations: The prime minister is expected to demand that his partners give him immunity from any corruption charge in exchange.

Annexation of the West Bank would likely be the death knell to any peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It would put an end to Palestinian hopes of a genuine two-state solution; the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the results show “that Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation.” Taking the West Bank would antagonize even governments in the region that share Netanyahu’s assessment of regional threats — such as Saudi Arabia.

After the election, Trump predicted that Netanyahu’s win would make a peace breakthrough more likely. He believes that simplifying negotiations — taking key issues like the status of Jerusalem or seized territories off the table — will make it easier to reach a solution. He does not realize that it has undermined U.S. credibility as an honest broker in any negotiations. The long-awaited peace plan prepared by his chief Middle East envoy, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, is now dead on arrival.

Japan does not recognize Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, and it continues to provide support to the Palestinian people directly, through United Nations and other aid organizations, and by creating business opportunities within the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Japan has continued to identify its differences with the U.S. on key Middle East issues, from Israel to Iran (it prefers engagement with Tehran to isolation, the Trump administration’s default policy). All concerned governments must now brace for increased violence as Palestinians give vent to the despair that they feel in the wake of Netanyahu’s re-election. The only remaining questions are how much gasoline will other regional governments throw on that fire and can that blaze be contained.