The final returns are in from the Israeli election and it appears that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will stay on. The big surprise of the election was that centrist Yair Lapid’s new party ran so strongly.
But Lapid’s showing was only that: a surprise. The only thing new about Lapid is that he represents the first time Israeli voters chose a media personality for a top position. At 49, he’s young (by Israeli standards), handsome and a good talker in both Hebrew and English. In terms of substance, he is nothing new. Most significantly, he is utterly conventional when it comes to issues of war and peace, specifically the Palestinians and Iran.
Does that mean the Israeli election changed nothing?
Absolutely not. It changed a great deal because Netanyahu did so poorly. Yes, he will likely remain as prime minister but in a far weaker position than he was before the election. Prior to this week’s election, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party held 42 seats. It is now down to 31, a dramatic decline and a personal repudiation of the prime minister who leads the party.
Just prior to the election Netanyahu, clearly expecting a landslide victory, said that he would run for another term after his upcoming term ended. That seems considerably less likely now. Suddenly he seems to be a man of the past, with Israeli commentators already scouting out the next prime minister from among the various parties (like Lapid’s) that did better than expected.
The new weaker Netanyahu is good news for President Obama. A half-year ago, Obama was struggling to win re-election while Netanyahu was riding high, so high that he defied tradition and sent a signal to his American friends that he would like to see Obama replaced by a Republican.
In March 2011, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress where he was repeatedly interrupted with standing ovations as he enunciated hard line policies that were at variance with Obama’s. Obama had to play catch up, lest Netanyahu weaken the president’s own standing here at home by rallying Israel’s supporters against the president. As late as the fall campaign, a worried Obama kept enunciating his solidarity with Netanyahu’s policies while Netanyahu’s friends like Sheldon Adelson, made clear that the right choice for Israel was Romney.
And then came the one-two punches. First Obama won re-election easily, earning a strong new mandate and carrying 70% of the Jewish vote in the process. For all the publicity it received, the Adelson push in the Jewish community accomplished nothing. And now Netanyahu, having called elections to achieve a strong mandate, barely won at all.
In short, the results of the two elections could be summed up as Obama 2, Netanyahu 0.
Obama is now in a position to squeeze Netanyahu hard. Does Obama want to push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement? If so, he is in a strong position to achieve it. The same applies to negotiating a deal with Iran without worrying that Netanyahu will successfully marshal his forces against him.
After all, even before this week’s election, Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense despite the opposition of many of Netanyahu’s friends here. Hagel seems headed for confirmation while the lobby has seemingly given up the fight. It says it can live with Hagel.
The bottom line is that while the Israeli election did not change anything in terms of Israeli policy, it did severely weaken Prime Minister Netanyahu vis a vis President Obama. This change in the respective standing of the two leaders will particularly be noticed by Israelis who, in contrast to the truculent prime minister, do not like to be at loggerheads with a strong, popular American president. From now on, Netanyahu’s confrontational rhetoric directed at Washington will sound tinny. It is Obama who holds the winning cards.
The question is whether he will play them.
A few months ago, I would have said that he wouldn’t. But since his re-election, and particularly following that splendidly aggressive inaugural address, I’m beginning to think he might.
He has no reason to fear Netanyahu now. Not only is he a second term president who is thinking in terms of legacy and not re-election, Netanyahu is on the ropes. If Obama acts strategically, he may be able to win over the Israeli people too. No, the election was not about foreign policy. It was about achieving some sort of domestic normalcy. Obama can demonstrate (at least to the half of the population that voted for centrist parties) that the only way to achieve that, once and for all, is through achieving peace with the Palestinians and ending the politics of bluster.
This is the moment to apply pressure. And the likely foreign policy team of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (along with Vice President Joe Biden who took a strong stand against Netanyahu early in the first term) are the people to do it. This is a moment that may not be repeated. Obama should go for it: an end to the occupation, two states, and peace and security for both peoples.
Just do it.