The apparent victory of the ruling right-wing Likud party led by Benjamin Netanyahu in the March 17 Israeli elections—dashing pre-election predictions of a close race against the center-left Zionist Union party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni—ultimately comes as no surprise. It will, however, have profound consequences, not only for Israel but also for the broader international community.
It may be several weeks before a new coalition government will be formed; Israel’s parliamentary system requires the government to be based on support from 61 of the 120 members of the Knesset, or parliament. The day after the election, however, Israeli and international commentators concurred that having won 30 seats it was quite likely that Likud would again form and lead the next government.
On top of aggressive campaigning in the last week before the election, the outcome reflects deep Israeli concerns and fears regarding the current state of turmoil in the Middle East. This includes the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, the subsequent spillover of large numbers of refugees into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, the Hamas-initiated war in the Gaza Strip of summer 2014, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and its promoting an Islamic Caliphate in areas of Iraq and Syria under its control, and Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program. All these developments underscore the sense of embattlement and threat to Israel’s survival and have been core themes of the religious/nationalist coalitions which have formed Likud-dominated governments over the past five years.
The election outcome will be particularly felt at the United Nations. Israel is likely to be further isolated in the international community, largely relying on the United States for support on a host of political and human rights issues. Forty eight years after the Six Day War, in which Israel took control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu’s declared rejection of a Palestinian state comes amid overwhelming international support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The failure of US-led negotiation efforts during the past six years of the Obama administration has frustrated most European, as well as African and Asian, states. Israel’s current stance will certainly raise more questions as to whether a two-state solution is even remotely feasible or realistic.
Palestine is currently a non-member observer state of the UN, a position from which it can further challenge Israel in international fora. The Palestinian Authority may well press again for becoming a full member state, an initiative which was vetoed by the US in the Security Council this past January. It is likely to turn again to the General Assembly for support. This may include a renewed effort to have Israel’s actions during the Gaza War brought before the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity. In addition, several countries are considering extending diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian Authority, with Sweden being the first to do so.
The election outcome will also have a direct impact on Israel-US relations. Israeli opposition to a Palestinian state, coming on the heels of its continued control of the occupied territories, puts it in direct opposition to a central tenet of American Middle East policy, namely the need for a two-state solution based on the principles of UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967). Moreover, Netanyahu’s recent speech to the US Congress opposing the ongoing six-party negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program has been seen not only as a violation of diplomatic practice but a deliberate effort to undermine another major US foreign policy objective. While the US will almost certainly continue to support and protect Israel against criticism and attacks at the UN, the fabric of US-Israel relations has certainly been strained.
In retrospect this is only the latest in a long line of defeats for the US-led peace process since the assassination of then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago. Rabin’s assassination by Yigal Amir, a right-wing extremist, deliberately targeted the one senior leader—and hero of the Six Day War—who conceivably could have brought Israel to accept a Palestinian state on its doorstep. President Clinton’s efforts in the last days of his second administration to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement between Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat came too late in his term. By excluding Egypt and Jordan from the negotiations, Clinton lost whatever possible leverage there was on Arafat to accept the proposed division of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Subsequent efforts by Ehud Olmert again came at the end of his term. Further efforts by Obama’s envoys George Mitchell and Martin Indyk and now Secretary of State John Kerry have also all foundered.
Following Netanyahu’s electoral victory, the Obama administration will again have to consider whether it can revive an Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on the principle of two states between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. With less than two years left before the 2016 US election it will be a tall order to salvage the negotiations, much less bring them to a successful outcome.