Window of Opportunity

January 25th, 2013

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

Never underestimate Israel’s ability to surprise.

All the polls and pundits ahead of Tuesday’s elections predicted a striking shift to ultra-right wing and religious parties. Instead, the middle-class reasserted its strength, wrenching the political balance of power back slightly to the center.

We still don’t know exactly what kind of coalition Benjamin Netanyahu will form or who will get key posts in the government, and we may not find out for several weeks – but here are a few key take-aways from the election:

  • The center-left and right-wing blocs are now roughly equal in strength: right-wing parties took 43 seats, down four from the last Knesset. The center and left hold 48 – and many of those are stronger in their support for two states and social justice than their predecessors. The ultra-orthodox and Arab parties held steady at 18 and 11 seats apiece.
  • Yair Lapid’s newly-formed Yesh Atid party, is the biggest winner with 19 seats, far more than anyone predicted. Lapid is now an indispensible part of the next government and will have considerable leverage, at least in the short term. His party campaigned on a promise to invest more in the middle class and less in the ultra-orthodox and settlers, and to end the exemption of the ultra-orthodox from the draft. Its leaders stated after the results came in that reviving the peace process for a two-state solution would be a central condition for joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.
  • Caution is called for as well: Lapid laid out his diplomatic views at a speech in the settlement of Ariel and has spoken of opposing any dilution of Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem. Israeli political history is replete with examples of new political forces, including the one headed by Lapid’s father, which scored big electoral wins but then failed to deliver.
  • Netanyahu and Lieberman lost a quarter of their strength. The Likud (without Yisrael Beitenu) only controls 21 seats in this Knesset. Lieberman’s future, complicated by his legal problems, is now in doubt and Netanyahu’s authority has been eroded. Netanyahu is still the near-certain prime minister – but his options are constrained.
  • To have anything but the most narrow of right wing and religious governments, he needs at least one centrist party. This gives Lapid in particular and also to some extent Tzipi Livni (whose party won six seats) more leverage than if Netanyahu could form a government of the right without them. If one, or both, are to join the coalition, they can insist on concessions not just on social policy, but on reviving the peace process. They can use their leverage to slow the settlement drive and divert funds away from settlements in favor of social programs that benefit the Israeli middle class as a whole.
  • A more centrist coalition may also restrain talk of taking military action against Iran.

We should take heart that the centrist heart of Israeli politics is alive and well, and the seemingly inexorable rise of the ultra-right has been halted. There remains a solid majority in Israel for a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s do-nothing policies were rejected by both the right and the left. Given the circumstances, this result is almost the best we could have hoped for and far better than expected.

An ultra-right wing government stacked with backers of the settlement movement would have made it very difficult to make progress toward a two-state solution. A broader, center-right coalition including some prominent supporters of a peace deal opens a window of opportunity for President Obama to launch a new initiative to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. The State of the Union Address on February 12 presents an early opportunity to make his intentions clear.

There is now a window of opportunity where many saw little hope before.

As soon as the new coalition is in place, Secretary of State Kerry should visit the Middle East to lay the groundwork for renewed diplomacy, as he intimated he might in his confirmation hearing yesterday.

We will then urge the President to put forward his own blueprint and timetable for an agreement and to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah later this year to kick-start the process.

We know our President is committed to this goal – and we intend to help him achieve success in every way we can.

Join us now in calling on the President to reaffirm his commitment to lead the way to a two-state solution in the State of the Union by clicking here.

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