I’m sorry to say that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tenure will continue. Despite considerable Israeli and American surprise at this news, this victory was to be expected. This election is being characterized in a number of different ways, most prominently called “The Referendum on Bibi.” I prefer to call it a de-facto “Referendum on the Israeli Left.”
The Israeli Left fell short yet again. Despite mounting a persistent, lengthy campaign against the incumbent and forming an ambitious joint list, the Livni-Herzog-led Zionist Camp fell to Netanyahu by a margin of six seats. If it is any consolation, while the Left lost when it mattered, controversial ultra-Right winger Avigdor Lieberman lost big time.
Ironically enough, Lieberman was a persistent advocate for recent electoral reform in Israel, namely raising the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent. Many suggest that this was done to dilute the influence of the fragmented Arab parties going forward. Winning six seats in the 2015 elections, it looks like Lieberman barely made it into the new Knesset. As reflected in a recent Ha’aretz article, Lieberman “[got] the sting he deserves.”
At the same time, former Likud stalwart Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu Party accrued nine seats, making him a key player in the coalition-building process. A bitter rival of Prime Minister Netanyahu, it seems Bibi will swallow his pride and award Kahlon a major cabinet post (rumors are Finance Minister) in exchange for his loyalty.
Changes in the Arab Israeli political establishment are of equal note. Setting a new precedent, divided Arab parties elected to form a joint list and run together. That move paid off as Arab voter turnout increased and this new Arab Joint List gained an impressive 13 seats.
Though it would be somewhat right to argue that this election constitutes a maintenance of the general Israeli political status quo, there is a lot to be gleaned from the results.
First, Netanyahu’s resounding victory in the face of such sharp and sustained criticism, shows that the Israeli voters continue to prioritize security. In the wake of the Second Intifada, an era of suicide bombing after suicide bombing in major Israeli cities, it’s no surprise that a plurality of Israelis lean right.
It is for this reason that Bibi Netanyahu, self-dubbed Bibi-sitter, Mr. Security and Mr. Status Quo, won on St. Patrick’s Day. It looks as if vowing not to create a Palestinian state and employing horrific race-baiting helped him quite a bit.
As the age of Bibi continues, expect U.S.-Israel relations to get a lot worse. The two nation’s leaders’ mutual contempt will only grow as Netanyahu continues grandstanding and President Obama pursues dubious negotiations with the Iranian government over its nuclear program.
As Israel becomes more diplomatically isolated and more distant from its closest and most reliable ally, the Left has some soul-searching to do. One can only hope that Livni and Herzog have learned that it is not enough to be against Bibi. This is especially true given the fact that in the eyes of many Israelis, the Oslo Accords (signed by Labor Party leader Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) were a poor strategic choice.
Furthermore, not since Rabin has the Left been led by a dynamic personality with a strong security background. For better or worse, this is what the Zionist Camp will need when the next elections roll around. It is not enough to run an ex-general or Mossad Chief in the third or fourth slot on party lists.
Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, the Arab Joint List now holds the third largest contingency in the new Knesset. As far as I’m concerned, this marks a serious window of opportunity for the Arab List to exert renewed legislative influence. It is a chance for them to be the swing vote on key bills and measures. I am curious and interested to see how their new strategic position affects their legislative agenda.
It’s still hard to believe that Bibi Netanyahu is prime minister again. Here’s hoping the Left at long last learns the difficult lessons of defeat and uses the next couple years to reinvigorate, revitalize and strengthen its leadership. Whatever happens in the next few years, it better prepare for another tough, close election.