What Benjamin Netanyahu's Victory Means for the Future of U.S.-Israeli Relations

What Benjamin Netanyahu's Victory Means for the Future of U.S.-Israeli Relations
Source: AP
Source: AP

After a brief scare heading into the last week of the campaign when a late poll showed him trailing the liberal opposition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party scored a decisive victory in the country's national elections on Tuesday.

In the coming days, Netanyahu is expected to guarantee himself another term as prime minister by quietly negotiating a coalition government with other right-wing and Orthodox religious parties. Publicly, he will face a more difficult task: trying to mend Israel's troubled diplomatic relationship with the U.S. and other historically sympathetic members of the international community. 

There's no guarantee, at least right now, that he will even make the effort. By declaring in the final 48 hours of the campaign that his government would never allow the formation of a proper Palestinian state, Netanyahu brazenly turned his back on decades of U.S. policy. The statement was a cynical — albeit successful — bid to drive conservative voters into the arms of his Likud Party.

But it didn't end there. On the day of the election, Netanyahu urged his supporters to get up and vote with the plainly racist warning that his "right-wing government is in danger" because "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls." In Israel, unlike so many other countries in the region, religious minorities have the right to vote. Netanyahu's rhetoric — an appeal to the worst in Israeli society — suggested he doesn't much value that distinguishing principle.

Quizzed about Netanyahu's recent comments Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the prime minister's apparent rejection of a two-state solution meant that the administration would have to "re-evaluate our approach" in trying to broker a peace. Politico quoted a senior White House official warning that "positions taken by the prime minister in the last days of the campaign have raised very significant substantive questions that go far beyond just optics."

So what comes next? What will the new Israeli government look like? Is there hope that the Obama administration can make diplomatic peace with Netanyahu? Or has the prime minister, in fighting to keep his position, done fatal damage to Israel's relationship with its most trusted ally?

Mic spoke to Natan Sachs, foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, about what exactly happened on Election Day and what we can expect in the coming weeks, months and years.

Mic: The campaign is now over, and we have a good idea of what the new government will look like. Where does the U.S.-Israeli relationship go from here? 

Natan Sachs: The relationship is not as bad as it seemed during the campaign, but not as good as many would hope. The Iran issue is a genuine difference between the two leaders. Netanyahu's speech to Congress? There may have been some politicking involved, but it was also reflective of his genuine opinion on the United States' policy on Iran. If a deal is struck in the next 10 days, or at least the framework of a deal is struck in the next 10 days, you can be sure Netanyahu is going to oppose it very strongly and will try to muster support in the U.S. to oppose it. With that, the crisis between the administrations will resume as it was recently. 

If there is no deal, things could be very different. Then the Palestinian question comes into play in the longer term. Right now all eyes are on the Iran negotiations, which were taking place even during Election Day and are probably even more consequential for the relations than anything related to the Palestinians.

Mic: The polls released about a week before the election showed Netanyahu's Likud Party trailing by a handful of seats and his liberal Zionist Union opponents gaining momentum. Were the polls simply wrong or did Netanyahu really win this in the last few days?

NS: Obviously the polling was way off and, moreover, they were wrong in a very consistent way. They all agreed among each other, but were quite different from the real results. 

But there was also something else which obviously happened, which is a strong rallying of the right wing around Netanyahu's Likud Party. In particular, there was a siphoning off of votes from the Jewish Home party, to Netanyahu's right. Netanyahu embarked on a very robust campaign, warning that if his Likud Party was not the largest, he might lose the premiership, regardless of the blocs. During the last two days and on Election Day, he warned that Arab voters — the Arab minority in Israel — were being bussed to polling stations, basically playing on antagonism between the Jewish majority in Israel and the Arab minority. 

Arabs tend to oppose Netanyahu, of course, and all this helped galvanize the right wing around him and made the Likud significantly bigger than the [opposition] Zionist Union. 

Mic: In the two days before the vote, Netanyahu made a pair of deeply controversial statements. On Monday, he turned his back on the U.S. and his own past statements and said there would never be a Palestinian state established as long as he was prime minister. The next morning, on Election Day, he went on TV to warn that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls." With those comments, has he made it impossible to ever rehabilitate his image in the global community and re-engage with the Palestinians?

NS: On the Arab voting comments, there isn't much of a policy issue. It was very troubling for the prime minister and I think it's a terrible statement he made — more than a statement; he ran a terrible campaign that day. But there is not much policy behind it.

In terms of the two-state solution, I think in Netanyahu's mind he walked away from the two-state solution less than is perceived abroad. To his mind, he was saying that it is not relevant at the present moment, but could be relevant in theory.

This is consistent with the way many Israelis think. They support the two-state solution in theory, by a clear majority, but a very clear majority also don't think it's going to happen anytime soon because the Palestinians are not willing. This is mirrored among Palestinians, who still by a majority probably support a two-state solution. But an overwhelming majority think Israel is not ready for it. So Netanyahu, from a political standpoint, is saying something that is not terribly controversial in Israel, though he went farther than he would usually because he was trying to court the right wing. 

Internationally, this is going to be much harder, because it strengthens one of Netanyahu's great weaknesses as prime minister, which is a lack of credibility, especially abroad. Some people feel that these statements are inconsistent with his policy this past year, in particular from the most recent negotiations led by the Americans. He's going to try to walk it back, I imagine, but I don't know how forcefully and it will be an uphill challenge if he tries.


Mic: Even with their big victory, Netanyahu and Likud only won 30 of 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset. Do you expect them to encounter any difficulties forming the necessary coalition of right-wing parties, like Jewish Home, to reach the necessary 61 seats and form a majority government? 

NS: No. Netanyahu will definitely form the next government and there will not be dramatic challenges. 

There are always smaller challenges, because it is a multi-party negotiation, but he will be the prime minister. The main party tasked with forming the government will negotiate with each one of the different partners, including [one of Netanyahu's popular former ministers] Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party, but others as well. Kahlon will very clearly get what he wants, which is the finance ministry. He might even get another one or two portfolios for his party. That should be relatively easy, partly because Kahlon holds a lot of power and Netanyahu promised him a lot during the campaign in an attempt to garner his support. 

So it's going to be relatively easy, but there are several other parties to negotiate with: The ultra-Orthodox parties are going to have policy demands, particularly repealing some of the secularist policy of former finance minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu will have to negotiate with the Jewish Home, of course, which lost a lot of seats because of Netanyahu's last minute appeal to the right wing. There might be some debate about how much power they deserve given their low tally, but on the other hand this low tally was a result of the intra-camp fighting.  

But all these are within the realm of normal difficulties. He will solve it and he will form a government.

Mic: What should people watch for in the weeks and months to come?

NS: I don't think there is any specific date, but there will certainly be more attempts by the Palestinians [to be recognized] at the United Nations and there may be more attempts by some of the European parties to introduce resolutions at the United Nations calling for new negotiations. 

I think that before the end of the Obama administration, there is some possibility the Americans will try to put forth some of the ideas that came about in the negotiations last year, using some of the American ideas as a framework to update prior resolutions, which have been the framework for negotiations in the past decades. That might happen before Obama leaves office, but not in the next few months.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.