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Israel Votes for More of the Same – And Seeks Change

Inter Press Service

“He who believes doesn’t fear”…re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hums a popular tune played with great intensity by his supporters. Indeed, faith is what Netanyahu badly needs right now as people showed just how little faith they have in him. “We’ll have coalition problems,” confides a Likud lawmaker.

Support for Netanyahu got him just enough seats in Parliament for his Likud party to keep him in office while a surging centrist vote inflated support for Yair Lapid, only a year ago a TV celebrity freshly converted to politics, and now king-maker, power-broker and potential game-changer.

“Those who voted for us chose normalcy, mutual trust, education and housing, care for the weak,” declared Lapid when it became clear that his Yesh ‘Atid (There’s a Future) was Israel’s second largest party.

“The state of Israel faces the most complex challenges,” warned Lapid. “The economic crisis threatens our middle class; Israel is isolated because of the diplomatic impasse.”

Two years ago, ‘The people demand social justice’ became the rallying call for middle-class Israelis trying against all odds to find a way of life that fulfils their expectation – normalcy. The protest subsided, but social grievances lingered.

Attentive to people’s demands, Lapid campaigned for reduction of the cost of living, including affordable housing for young couples; a more equal sharing of the defence burden by proposing to draft the ultra-Orthodox currently exempt from military service; and a return to peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu chose to ignore those demands; he recycled old ideas. His unbending, unforgiving motto was ‘A strong Prime Minister for a strong Israel’. But a budget deficit of 10.5 billion dollars (4.2 percent of GDP) betrayed Israel’s vulnerability.

Just as he stood twice already as prime minister (in 1996 and 2009) before the Western Wall, Judaism’s most revered site, Netanyahu stood there again after he voted – as if he himself was the last wall against a division of Jerusalem.

He thought he would uphold his political stature if only he maintained a status quo of occupation in the West Bank and buttressed Israel’s fences and stockade against Syria, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip.

He refused to make the most of progress made during the Annapolis peace process (2007-8) by his predecessor Ehud Olmert, instead preferring to argue for starting peace talks all over again from scratch.

At the beginning of his term in May 2009, during his only meaningful policy address at Bar Ilan University, he agreed to the principle of a “demilitarised state” in Palestine. Then he consented, albeit reluctantly as a result of “proximity talks”, to a ten-month moratorium on settlement construction.

But instead of following the U.S. advice that he prolongs the freeze for an additional three months, he initiated a surge in settlement expansion in occupied East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

During his re-election campaign, apart from a self-declared record on security, the sole course of action he bragged about was the steps his government promoted to create a competitive environment in the cellular market which led to a tangible decrease in telecommunication fees.

Re-elected yet barely surviving, Netanyahu belatedly rephrased his guiding principles after his more difficult than expected re-election. Though “preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons” is still “first priority”, “the pursuit of peace is now our third one,” he promised. And, he vowed to redress social iniquities.

Post-electoral pledges aside, Netanyahu is already at work cobbling together a centre-right governing coalition that would include Lapid. But whether he excludes some of his natural allies – the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home or the ultra-Orthodox – remains to be seen.

Either way, a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear sites seems reduced to making the usual empty threats if to listen to Likud legislator Tsahi Ha-Negbi: “Netanyahu has a strong understanding that unless the world prevents a nuclear Iran, we’ll have to take the initiative.”

Israel’s public television news editor Uri Levy believes “there’s no difference between Right, Centre and Left – everyone knows Iran’s threat. So Netanyahu enjoys a consensus on whatever he’ll do on Iran. Obviously, it depends on what Iran will do.”

Will Netanyahu continue to manage the conflict with the Palestinians or strive to resolve it? Ha-Negbi is cautious: “An overwhelming majority of Israelis are waiting for a big compromise – if it’ll be met by the same understanding and historical compromise by the Palestinians.”

U.S. President Barack Obama can now afford a smile. As both leaders start their respective new term, Netanyahu will want an improvement of their relationship – if he puts together a moderate coalition.

Ha-Negbi predicts that it will be more difficult for Netanyahu now to root Israel in more of the same status quo and vacuum of initiatives.

If his first term provides an indication of his second-term performance, it will be worth examining the kind of coalition Netanyahu intends to forge in the weeks ahead. Left with no choice but the people’s choice, he’s reaching out to the Centre.

If he stays true to himself (as in ‘keen to survive’), Netanyahu will split up with some of the pro-occupation annexationist and religious Right and move towards the Centre and, maybe, towards a modicum of two-state peace leverage that would eventually split the land roughly down the middle.

Meanwhile, between the old ‘much ado about nothing’ Netanyahu who did barely nothing meaningful during his first term and the new Netanyahu who, while putting up his coalition together, is at his best manoeuvring in order to survive, pundits already foresee early elections.

Pierre Klochendler is a contributor to Inter Press Service.

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