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Netanyahu’s victory is a disaster for the peace process

Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

There's no sugarcoating this: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stunning victory in Tuesday's Israeli election is an utter disaster for Israel's peace camp and, by extension, the Palestinians.

The right-wing prime minister won on the back of an ultra-hawkish, at times nakedly racist campaign. He openly declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch if re-elected. He warned of Arab voters "streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations," which is a lot like an American politician warning about too many black voters turning out. What does it say about Israel, and the conflict, that his campaign worked?

The answer is clear. The way Israelis have voted reflects their increasing skepticism over any efforts to find peace with the Palestinians; it's also paved the way for a new government whose policies are deeply unlikely to promote that peace.

This election proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Israel's traditional pro-peace leftist majority is well and truly dead. And it's hard to see how a peace deal could happen without it.

The left's long death

sad bougie herzog (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party, looking not-thrilled at a post-election event. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

By all rights, Netanyahu should have lost this election.

The top issue, soaring housing prices and cost of living, strongly favored the opposition — especially after an official report blamed Netanyahu's government for doing little to rein in housing costs. Netanyahu's public spat with President Obama had put the US-Israel relationship in crisis mode. Despite Netanyahu's tough talk, the prime minister had failed to stop Iran's nuclear progress.

That's a lot for the center-left opposition to work with. They lost anyway.

More specifically, Netanyahu's Likud party won by siphoning voters away from the other right parties who will become its coalition partners. Mainstream Israeli opinion has shifted to the right: to win, Likud didn't need to win over a swath of centrist voters. It needed to jazz up the right with nasty rhetoric about Palestinians and Arabs.

The right's ascent has been happening for decades. This beautiful graphic from The Economist, using data from the Israel Democracy Institute and several other sources, shows how Labor and the left, depicted in dark blue and teal, used to dominate parliament — but since 1977, the right (bright blue, gray-blue, and salmon) has increasingly taken control of Israeli politics.

economist chart israeli politics

The results from this year are based on pre-election polls, so severely understate Likud's strength. (The Economist)

This long-term rightward shift in public opinion is a tough hurdle for left-of-center parties: they're trying to appeal to an electorate that no longer shares their traditional political values. That barrier proved insurmountable even in a year when the issues favored the center-left.

And if anything, this analysis understates the left's weakness. In the past few years, Israel's major left-wing party, Labor, has gotten more centrist and less dovish, while its right-wing equivalent, Likud, has become more hawkish.

"I wouldn't call Labor that traditional Jewish political left anymore... It is the center, and it's moved in many ways closer to the right, particularly on the peace process," said Brent Sasley, a professor at UT Arlington who studies Israeli politics. During this year's campaign, Labor leader Isaac Herzog played down his support for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, recognizing (correctly) that the peace process was one of the right's stronger issues.

Sasley thinks "there's only one party that's the Jewish political left." That's Meretz, a party that won the bare minimum number of seats (four) necessary to be in the Knesset. The Jewish left's last true bastion is on the verge of being voted out of parliament entirely.

Meanwhile, Likud is going through a process that some observers have referred to as Tea Party-ization. Younger Israelis tend to be more conservative, increasingly empowering the more right-wing factions inside Likud. That causes center-right voters to defect to centrist parties, pushing the party ever rightward as it seeks to play to its increasingly conservative support base. "It's a generational shift," Sasley says.

Why Israeli politics has moved to the right

naftali bennett

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Though this rightward shift in Israeli public opinion has been ongoing for decades, it accelerated sharply in the 21st century. The cause is obvious: the failure of the 1990s peace process, the violence of the Second Intifada — the five-year Palestinian uprising from the year 2000 that left 4,000 people dead — and the rise of Hamas in Gaza. There are additional factors at play here, such as communal tensions that have pushed voters from Israeli's Mizrahi population, Jews who mostly hail from surrounding Muslim countries, toward Likud. But political scientists have found that suicide bombs and rocket attacks have concretely and measurably pushed Israelis rightward in general.

"The Second Intifada really was a traumatic event for Israeli society," Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said in August. "For a decade in the ‘90s, Israelis were coming to terms strongly with Palestinian aspirations... it was shattered in the Second Intifada, and the consequence was the pendulum swung in the entire opposite direction." In other words, public opinion swung strongly towards skepticism that Palestinians were willing to make peace.

This trend played out dramatically in this year's election: the most plausible governing coalition is made up almost entirely of peace-process skeptics. Netanyahu's partners will likely include the hardline pro-settler Jewish Home, the hawkish nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-Orthodox UTJ and Shas, and Kulanu, a center-right party that's nominally open to a two-state solution but ultimately focused on the economy above all.

This election is a catastrophe for the peace process

israeli palestinian argument Musa al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli soldiers argue with Palestinians. (Musa al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

Netanyahu's last coalition included centrist parties like Hatnua, which has a strong commitment to the peace process. This one likely won't have anything similar. Its hard-right character will only strengthen Netanyahu's natural policy inclinations.

The prime minister is ideologically opposed to giving up what he sees as Jewish land. He doesn't trust the Palestinians to uphold any peace agreement. He's not particularly interested in curtailing the building of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Without political pressure either at home or abroad, Netanyahu won't engage seriously in the peace process.

This election proves he has nothing to fear from the left. Domestically, he'll be pressured to maintain or even ramp up hawkish policies like settlement building — the biggest threat to his likely coalition comes from a right-wing rebellion, not a left-wing one. He won re-election on the back of right-wing sentiment, and that's what he'll need to appease while in office.

The new coalition will also make it easier for him to resist international pressure to move on the peace process. The Israeli right sees Israel as a besieged state, one that can only rely on itself to survive, and views the international community as irredeemably hostile. Threats of global sanction for settlements or inaction on peace won't convince Netanyahu and his partners that they need to change their behavior — in their minds, it'll only prove their point. Pressure would be less likely to backfire if Netanyahu's likely coalition included a larger centrist component, but it doesn't.

Without some kind of credible left-wing pressure for peace, the chances that this government sits down for serious negotiations with the Palestinians — let alone manages to come to some kind of compromise that's acceptable to both sides — is virtually nil. That's even setting aside the question of whether the West Bank leadership is capable of making a deal right now, which is still very open.

So the occupation — a crushing weight on Palestinians and a painful sore for Israelis — is probably not going anywhere.

Tiny glimmers of hope

Two notes of optimism amidst the gloom.

First, it's at least conceivable that Netanyahu's government manages to address the immediate crises in Israeli-Palestinian relations — most notably the risk that the Palestinian Authority collapses entirely. After the Palestinian Authority moved to join the International Criminal Court, the Israeli government suspended payments to the Palestinian Authority, jeopardizing its ability to function as a governing authority in the West Bank.

After this victory, Netanyahu "should have [the] political space to immediately do the right thing and release revenues," Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote. It's by no means inevitable that Netanyahu does this, but it's at least conceivable.

Second, the fact that the Israeli left is weak now doesn't mean it will be forever. Mainstream Israel's deep skepticism about Palestinian intentions masks a latent desire for an end to the conflict.

"The median voter ... is loath to accept most of these concessions, although would probably accept all of the concessions in the context of a real, final deal," Sachs, the Brookings expert, said. Even though Israelis are skeptical about the prospects for a deal right now, and so are hostile to isolated proposals for concessions, they're still basically interested in making one.

Whether the left can figure out a way to best exploit that is an open question. For at least two cycles now, the left has tried focusing on the economy and playing down the peace process, hoping it will get a chance to push negotiations once in power. This election suggests that approach has failed — and the left will need new ideas if it wants to seriously challenge Netanyahu and the resurgent right.