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Victorious Benjamin Netanyahu needs Palestinian outreach


By: Greg Sheridan

ISRAEL’S election seems to have resulted in a substantial victory for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. No party won a majority, so negotiations to form a governing coalition will take some time.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu has defied all recent polling to win by a clear margin over the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog.

Herzog’s Labor Party dominates the Zionist Union. Despite its enormous problems, proportional representation does furnish a remarkably complex guide to Israeli opinion.

Both big parties — Likud and Labor — substantially strengthened their vote. Combined with a modest quota to stop micro-parties, this should make Israeli politics a little more coherent.

Israeli politics and society are remarkably little covered in the international media because the focus is on the Palestinian question and regional security. The remarkable thing about Israel is not how obsessed with security it is — how could it be otherwise, given its location? — but how normal and quotidian its politics mostly are.

All pre-election polling showed a substantial majority of Israelis intended to vote on economic and social issues rather than security. Although Netanyahu is strongly associated with security, and with his campaign against the deal the US is proposing to do with Iran over its nuclear program, the economy also works for the Likud as an issue.

Netanyahu reformed the Israeli economy as finance minister some years ago. It is rightly hailed now as “the start-up nation” with an astonishing number of hi-tech firms at the cutting edge of technological innovation. Some of this, of course, is linked to its big military budget but it is overwhelmingly private sector-led.

The Israeli economy weathered the global financial crisis with the mildest of recessions and a very strong rebound. This should be of some interest to Australia because political gridlock in the Knesset at the time prevented Israel from instituting any kind of stimulus program. Israel demonstrated it was not necessary to spend a country into bankruptcy to survive the GFC.

Nonetheless, economic inequality and the high cost of housing and food have contributed to the Labor revival.

There are two big centrist parties that had almost nothing to say about Palestinian or security issues. One is led by a former Likud minister, focused heavily on the economy, and seems most likely to go with Likud. The other has a dislike of the privileged position of, and lack of economic contribution by, the Orthodox Jewish community.

There are a couple of small parties representing Orthodox Jews, another small party on the Left, a small pro-settler party, and a small party based on Russian ethnic identity. This combination looks more likely to furnish a governing coalition to Netanyahu than to Herzog.

Another fascinating result was the strong vote by Israeli Arabs. Setting a minimum threshold forced the three Israeli Arab parties to come together and they will now be the third largest group in the Knesset, behind Likud and the Zionist Union. With even a modicum of political skill, the Israeli Arab representatives should be able to use these numbers to secure greater consideration of their interests, in the normal democratic way.

That has to be a healthy development for Israeli society.

A lot of Israel’s friends overseas are disappointed Herzog did not win. I have interviewed Herzog a few times and he is a competent, centrist, sensible political leader. He would have been much more difficult to demonise than Netanyahu. But in truth his policies on the Palestinians and security issues would be mostly indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s.

Much is made of an interview that Netanyahu gave just before the election in which he said the formation of a Palestinian state “today” is impossible because for Israel to give up territory at the moment would be giving up ­territory “that will be used as a launching ground for attacks by Islamist extremists against the state of Israel”.

He said this doleful conclusion was reached because of the ­“reality that has been formed here in recent years”.

Although from the direct quote it is clear Netanyahu said the formation of a Palestinian state “today” is impossible, most media reports are conveniently leaving out the word “today”. They are then contrasting this statement with the speech Netanyahu gave at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv in 2009 in which he committed himself to a Palestinian state.

The events of recent years to which Netanyahu refers are obvious. There is, in Syria on Israel’s northern border, a chaotic civil war in which tens of thousands have already died. Nearby in Iraq is another vicious civil war. There are millions of displaced people from these two nations in Jordan and Lebanon. After several years of roiling instability, a new military regime is establishing itself in Egypt, on Israel’s southern border.

The Sinai desert, territory that Israel surrendered to Egypt, is newly awash with jihadist activism. Libya is complete chaos. Israel is still subject to sporadic rocket attacks from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Everyone at a senior level in the Middle East knows this context renders the formation of a fully fledged Palestinian state impossible for the moment, though of course a Palestinian state is the right and the only solution in the long run.

I put this to Tony Blair at a conference in the Middle East a couple of years ago and he agreed that the chaos of the Arab Spring rendered a Palestinian state impos­sible for the time being, but argued that it was very important to have a negotiations process so the long-term goal was clear to everyone, and some degree of normalisation could be maintained.

The difference between Netanyahu and Herzog is only that Netanyahu said the unpalatable publicly. But Herzog was not promising a peace deal, merely an effort to resume negotiations. On settlements he promised only that he would not allow expansion beyond the big settlement blocks.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu certainly needs to make some serious outreach to the Palestinians. His prospects of leading a stable government are reasonable. That’s the best you can expect from an ­Israeli election.

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