Retreat to go Forward – Israel Edition

It’s interesting how quickly the idea that a right-wing coalition is bad for Israel, and that even Netanyahu knows this, has set itself in in the last week. This report in Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse claims that Netanyahu is scrambling to get the Zionist Union on board as a member of his coalition, because withotu them he won’t have any plausible deniability on negotiations with the Palestinians.

The makeup of the [2009] coalition that he formed with [Labor Party leader Ehud] Barak could not have been better as far as Netanyahu was concerned: It created a false impression of a desire to move the diplomatic process forward through the Labor Party and gained him relative calm on the international front. In fact, Netanyahu did not advance the process, but rather he put it on hold, something that won him relative calm from the settlers and the extreme right wing of the Likud. A truly magic formula.

In other words, any negotiations Netanyahu undertakes with the Palestinians are not done in good faith but rather just to placate the US enough to keep its diplomatic shield over Israel. Which sounds about right. So, by this reasoning, he needs a member of his coalition that is strong enough to include negotiations leading to a Palestinian state in its list of coalition membership demands, but not strong enough to overcome his behind-the-scenes efforts to undermine the process once it’s underway. That way, the US has diplomatic cover to keep providing Israel with diplomatic cover, but Israel doesn’t actually have to concede anything in reality, so his nationalist coalition partners and voters (let’s not forget, he won a lot of seats this time by deliberately siphoning seats from his natural allies to the right) stay happy.

That sort of turns the question on its head about whether Netanyahu should form an alliance with the Zionist Union (more or less the old Labor Party). One of the more interesting things about this election was Presiden Rivlin’s declared intent to encourage such an alliance. I’m not Israeli and so not too sure how kosher it is for the President (who has the formal duty to ask one of the parties to try to form a government and then accept it if it seems stable) to intervene in this way, but he’s done it in any case.

The common sense view would be that it’s in Israel’s best interest at the moment for Netanyahu to form a unity government with the Zionist Union just because relations with the US are at a critical juncture. After Netanyahu came out against a two-state solution – at least in the short term – to grab right-wing votes, US support is no longer a given. A coalition with the Zionist Union in which the Zionist Union included negotiations on its list of demands would allow Netanyahu to back away from his election position under a cover of plausible deniability that would protect his relationship with the nationalist voters he courted.

But sometimes common sense doesn’t get you what you want, and I wonder if this isn’t one of those times. If the author is right, and Netanyahu has never negotiated in good faith with the Palestinians, and a coalition partner like Zionist Union would only ever be invited into the government to provide him with cover with what amount to sham negotiations, then perhaps the real common sense view is for Herzog and the Zionist Union to stay out. Netanyahu would then be forced to form a coalition with a bunch of undesireables (and, in public, that’s what he says he intends to do anyway – pressed on the subject he always rules out coalition with the Zionist Union), and Israel would get a reasonably dangerous government for a couple of years. Negotiations with the Palestinians would either never happen or conspicuously never go anywhere, terrorist attacks would continue, US support would get tepid or evaporate altogether, and all this while the neighborhood gets more dangerous due to circumstances that have little to do with Israel. Let’s say this government lasts for two years until the inevitable intra-coalition sqabbling brings it down. Two years sounds like just enough time for an "anyone but Netanyahu" sentiment to grow enough opposition to really kick him out. The Zionist Union would have to pick a new leader, and the centrist secular parties (Kulanu and Yesh Atid) would have to pick up more supporters, but this seems doable. If international pressure had built enough by that time and Israel elected a center-left coalition in response to it, we might have the first real opening in negotiations with the Palestinians in many years.

All of this assumes the view that the two-state solution is the best solution for Israel. Obviously there’s a big difference of opinion about that. But if you think it is, and I do, then maybe Netanyahu winning and forming a coalition with a bunch of undesireables on the right is exactly what was needed. Things have to get worse before they can get better. And there’s a silver lining as well: Netanyahu may get a couple of more years to keep dismantling the Israeli welfare state, a process which has been immensely beneficial for the Israeli economy, and which is in danger of stalling half-complete.

Elections can be complicated, and Israel’s political culture is more complicated than most. Letting the bad guys have a couple of years at the helm might turn out to be a good thing in the end – indirectly.

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