Don’t Get Hysterical Over Israel’s Election
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has predictably described the results of Israel’s Nov. 1 election in apocalyptic terms. Of course, any government that does not share his views is anathema. The same goes for many other critics.
The doomsayers predicting the demise of U.S.-Israel relations are crying wolf.
Israel demonstrated again that it has a super-democracy that Americans and Jews should be proud of. Instead of being limited to choosing between two parties, Israelis had a choice of 40, giving them a better opportunity to be represented.
While his supporters crown Benjamin Netanyahu king and the media interprets the election outcome as a great victory for the comeback senior, few analysts have noted that only 23% of Israelis voted for him. Netanyahu is unpopular, but he won because his rivals are even less popular.
Netanyahu did not do well even by Likud standards, winning fewer seats than his predecessors. His bloc picked up 64 seats, but this was no landslide either. Analyst Yossi Alpher has noted that the incoming coalition received barely 30,000 more votes than the outgoing one.
However, a win is a win, and Netanyahu will hold power.
The election did show Israel’s continuing shift to the right. This began with the failure of Oslo and was cemented by the disengagement from Gaza. Israelis have no interest in compromising with people they view as a mortal threat, whether they are radicalized Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Hezbollah or Iran.
After decades of Palestinian intransigence, the Palestinians’ rejection of multiple opportunities for a state and incessant terror, it is unsurprising that the “Palestinian issue” was a non-issue in the last five elections and the left has become irrelevant. The dovish once-dominant Labor Party won just four seats and Meretz none.
The most disturbing result for many Jews was the success of the far-right Religious Zionist Party. It was embraced by only 10% of the electorate, but still became the third-largest party in the Knesset.
Though it has been taken for granted that party leaders Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich will be given ministries and wreak havoc on Israel’s democracy, Netanyahu has already signaled that he will not let them dictate policy. Theoretically, they could threaten to bring down the coalition, but that would mean giving up their newly-won influence. It is also possible that Benny Gantz will decide it is better to be in the government, keep Ben-Gvir and Smotrich out and give Netanyahu an opportunity to avoid the headaches they would cause.
However, the main reason not to get hysterical is that Netanyahu is a known quantity. He will conduct himself as he has in the past.
Netanyahu has successfully steered the economy, kept Israel out of war (though he wanted to attack Iran) and is familiar to world leaders. He will have to make the usual concessions to the religious parties on the budget, education, the draft, the Western Wall and Shabbat, but his domestic approach to security will not change dramatically, no matter what Ben-Gvir and Smotrich want. His first, second and third priorities remain Iran. The only question is whether he can convince the defense establishment to pull the trigger if Iran gets closer to building a nuclear weapon and the United States fails to act.
Without U.S. approval, which Israel is unlikely to get, an attack on Iran would upset the Biden administration, but the intensity of its ire would depend on the success of the operation and Iran’s reaction. Remember, President Ronald Reagan was furious over Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, but the relationship survived and America’s security was enhanced.
Unlike the hostility that marred relations during President Barack Obama’s presidency, Joe Biden and Netanyahu have gotten along in the past and understand where they disagree. In his congratulatory phone call to Netanyahu, Biden “reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Israel bilateral partnership, based on a bedrock of shared democratic values and mutual interests, and underscored his unwavering support for Israel’s security.”
Biden recognizes that the peace process with the Palestinians is moribund and hasn’t wasted time or political capital on it. The focus will be on expanding the Abraham Accords. This is Netanyahu’s priority after helping to drive the normalization of ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Though it is still a long shot given the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations, the hope is that the Saudis will join the Accords. We know Netanyahu met secretly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2020, and they share concerns about Iranian ambitions.
Congress will also remain solidly behind Israel. With Republicans likely to control the House, Israel can count on continued military assistance and greater scrutiny of aid for the Palestinians. The Senate will remain reliable no matter who has the majority. Neither party wants to alienate pro-Israel voters as they gear up for 2024.
Inevitably, there will be disagreements over settlements, Israel-China relations and policies towards the Palestinians, but none are new or consequential enough to weaken the relationship.
Most American Jews are not going to turn on Israel. The same disputes over pluralism will remain, but the outgoing government did not resolve them either, despite its pledge to do so.
If the Religious Zionists are in the government, their rhetoric will cause tsouris, but it will not cause American campuses to grow more anti-Israel than they already are. Israel didn’t get any credit for having an Islamist Arab party in the last government and can do nothing to assuage the hostility of its detractors on and off campus. Israel’s existence, not its policies, is the root of their hatred.
If the new Israeli government adopts policies that are viewed as anti-democratic, it will be just one more thing to kvetch about. Elections have consequences, and if you don’t like the results, make aliyah and participate in the political process rather than throw bricks from afar.
Some American Jews will always focus on its flaws, but true lovers of Israel, unlike the Thomas Friedmans of the world, do not turn on the country because they have disagreements.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine