So you wanted a Jewish state — a democracy, no less. Well, you got one.
Over the course of a century, the most talkative people has been empowered with the most debate-encouraging political system to create what is arguably one of the most colorful, noisy and widely-covered election cycles in the world.
But while this election’s results are pretty much in line with what the final weeks of polling have suggested — the bigger Likud and Zionist Camp parties came out stronger than expected, while Moshe Kahlon still looks like the kingmaker for the next government — there were a few last-minute surprises that will resonate far beyond the coming weeks and months.
1. Bibi’s Two-State Shocker
For about five minutes yesterday, headlines across America blasted out Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he is Prime Minister. This would appear to fly in the face of his own declared Israeli policy, and undermine the central pillar of both American and European policies vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet beyond the fact that Western media were way too preoccupied with the election itself to dwell on his pronouncements, there are two big reasons why it slipped quickly off the radar.
First — because pretty much anything that is said by any Israeli politician in the week before elections may be safely dismissed as electioneering. And second — because it is far from clear what exactly the shift would mean if he even meant it. After all, from Netanyahu’s perspective, the difference between accepting or rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state today, when the vast majority of Israelis oppose it and the peace talks haven’t borne fruit in a very long time, seems more like a shift from “we believe in a Palestinian state as soon as the Palestinians are ready for one” to “we reject a Palestinian state because the Palestinians aren’t yet ready for one.” In other words, de facto, it feels more like a shift in rhetoric — even if an important one with long-lasting consequences — than a change in policy.
2. The Political Demise of Tzipi Livni?
The intensive news cycle had a second casualty — the sudden collapse of Tzipi Livni’s attempts to become prime minister. The woman who led Kadima after the departure of Ehud Olmert but couldn’t translate getting the most seats in the 2009 elections to a victory, who joined Herzog’s Labor party in an effort to bring down Netanyahu, was presented with a stark fact: That her rotation agreement with Herzog, in which they would switch off the Prime Ministry if they won, was more of a liability than an asset.
Yet it’s not even clear if her decision the day before elections to back out of the rotation helped the party’s election hopes: It was quickly pounced upon by Netanyahu as a sign of panic, and by Kahlon and Lapid as signaling an intention to enter a unity government despite promises to the contrary. Either way, it will be remembered as a serious blow to Livni’s public stature as a candidate for the highest office; and having tied her party’s fate to Labor, it’s unclear if she even has the political clout left to lead a viable party at all.
3. The Silent Agreement on Iran
Yet possibly the most important issue is the one that barely made an appearance in the campaigns — Iran. Earlier today, Herzog told the BBC that there was “no daylight” between his position on Iran and that of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Neither do we have any reason to see this as simple electioneering — days ago, his prospective Defense Minister Amos Yadlin emphasized that he too saw “all options on the table” vis a vis Iran, and it is not impossible to imagine a Labor-led Israeli government actually having an easier time pulling off an Iran assault than one led by Likud.
This issue was trivial in the Israeli election because it is a matter of consensus — even those who opposed Netanyahu’s speech before Congress on March 3 emphasized that they didn’t disagree with him on substance. In the U.S., however, many have sought to paper over the unity that Israelis feel — including Israeli leaders — on this issue.
Indeed, if Herzog does indeed form a government, rest assured there will be talk in Washington that Netanyahu’s criticism of the nuclear negotiations with Iran has been repudiated by Israelis themselves. They are wrong — and are likely to be in for an unpleasant surprise when Herzog reaffirms Israel’s sharp opposition to any deal similar to the one currently being negotiated.