The White House reserved its judgment in the hours after results began coming in from Israeli elections. The perfunctory statement congratulating the winner and praising the democratic process was put on hold, perhaps in a lingering hope that the coalition building process will somehow send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu home and crown Isaac Herzog as Israel’s next leader.
But the final count only increased Netanyahu’s win, making a Herzog-led coalition even less likely. The reality facing those in charge of U.S.-Israeli relations is that Israel will be led again by Netanyahu, either as the head of a narrow right-wing government, or at the helm of a national unity government.
In a narrow government, Netanyahu’s Likud party will join forces with its right-wing partners (Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu), with Israel’s three ultra-Orthodox lists, and with Moshe Kahlon, the centrist, socially-focused newcomer who has emerged as the kingmaker.
Such a coalition would be easy to reach and even easier to maintain thanks to its ideological cohesion, but it would be a nightmare when it comes to running Israel’s international relations, especially with the United States.
Relations between Washington and Jerusalem, which had been rocky from early 2009, near the start of each man’s respective tenure, deteriorated quickly in the past few months. The Israeli leader’s speech to Congress and his recent promise that if elected he would make sure there will not be a Palestinian state, made clear that there was little hope for repairing ties with the White House in the two years Obama still has in office.
The list of disagreements is long and includes the future of a two-state solution; the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran, and personal mistrust between the two leaders. Now, if a new right wing coalition is formed, expect also tensions surrounding a renewed push for building in the settlements.
The combination of a Palestinian Authority determined to seek international recognition and an American administration so angered by Israel that it is no longer willing to fight its battles in the international arena, could spell even more trouble.
Netanyahu could seek to ease tensions with Obama by lowering the tone of his rhetoric, now that elections are over and there is no longer need to woo his base. He could even offer some kind of gesture, perhaps by replacing some time this year his ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer who has irked so many Democrats. But Netanyahu’s blunt, racially incendiary election-day call on his base to come out and rebuff “Arab voters [who] are coming out in droves to the polls” may — for all its apparent domestic success — further darken his image with some Democrats and liberals who already view him as a dangerous demagogue. Evoking the question of voting rights for minorities could come across as toxic even for American supporters of the Israeli prime minister.
Meanwhile, the makeup of a right-wing – Orthodox coalition will leave Netanyahu with little room to maneuver diplomatically, especially after painting himself into a corner with his vow to now oppose a two-state solution.
A potential coalition with the right-wing and Orthodox parties will include only one high-level diplomatic figure who could help restore relations: former ambassador Michael Oren from Kahlon’s Kulanu party. But as a low ranking member in a mid-sized party, he will not be awarded a government portfolio and will not be in a position to influence relationship with Washington.
Taken together, all these challenges could lead Netanyahu to consider a national unity government, in which he offers Herzog the opportunity to join as an equal partner, but without rotating the premiership, and with another centrist or religious party or two.
The main advantage for Netanyahu in this arrangement would be having Herzog, Livni and the entire Zionist Union faction serve as his shield against international pressure, or some would say as a fig leaf which would make him accepted in international circles. A unity government would require Netanyahu to walk back his statement regarding the Palestinian state and to return to the formula that kept him afloat in the past years – supporting a two state solution while making clear the time is not ripe for it.
It would be a coalition fraught with tension, as Herzog and Livni would likely push for limiting the expansion of Israeli Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. They could press, too, for concessions on the ground that would please international partners, such as releasing Palestinian tax revenue held by Israel. But Israel has endured unlikelier coalitions.
The decision is in Netanyahu’s hands.
What may be viewed as an elegant way out of an international bind, by inviting Herzog into the government, could seem unnecessary in the eyes of Netanyahu. After all, Bibi succeeded Tuesday night in breaking one of the longest held axioms in U.S.-Israel relations: that maintaining good relations with America is crucial for political survival. The glaring example of Yitzhak Shamir’s defeat in 1992 after his head-on confrontation with the George H. W. Bush administration has just been invalidated by Netanyahu. He proved that an Israeli leader could bring relations with the White House to a historic low, and still emerge victorious.