The Israeli-election campaign banner, showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump in a grip-and-grin photo, was so big it had to hang from buildings.
Now it’s Israel and, in some sense, U.S.-Israel relations that are left hanging.
That’s because the second Israeli election in five months was once again inconclusive, with neither Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition or an upstart party, Blue and White, led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, winning enough seats to form a majority government.
So starting Sunday Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, officially commences coalition talks.
The jockeying didn’t wait, however. Netanyahu tried to seize the initiative and squeeze Gantz into an early deal.
Gantz, a political newcomer but savvy veteran, didn’t flinch. “We will not give in to any dictate,” he said. “I will conduct the negotiations responsibly and judiciously. There will be no shortcuts.”
There are also no shortcuts to uniting Israel’s divisions. But the disunity isn’t primarily left-right (the left has mostly been left behind in recent elections), but along secular-religious splits. Gantz is a centrist, and Netanyahu has represented a conservative coalition that includes ultraorthodox parties prioritizing issues like military service exemptions.
This stance doesn’t stand for the secular nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, an ally-turned-adversary who turned against Netanyahu.
The Rubik’s Cube of multiple Israeli political parties is usually manipulated to make a majority. But this time a national Blue and White-Likud unity government may be in the offing. Gantz, however, is likely to insist that Netanyahu yield his top office, especially since the prime minister may soon officially face charges of corruption (which he denies).
A coalition “could be extremely shaky because you have these two elephants butting heads, but it could also be extremely stable because you don’t have all these small parties getting in the way,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a career State Department diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.
Kurtzer, who is now a Princeton professor of Middle East Policy Studies, said that “personalities and portfolios, as well as policy guidelines,” would be key elements in the talks. “You can solve the portfolio issue,” Kurtzer said. “But the question is can you solve the Netanyahu question?”
And more profoundly, Kurtzer added, “the policy question is whether anybody is really going to fall on their sword over either the peace-process issue or settlements building?”
Netanyahu didn’t fall on a sword, but threw a political grenade when he promised at the end of the campaign to annex portions of the West Bank, a move that might isolate Israel even more from some governments in the region as well as in Europe, let alone among some in the United States.
A Gantz government is less likely to make such a move, said Ron Krebs, a University of Minnesota political science professor. And yet “while there are differences in the margin, and there are certainly differences in tone, I don’t think that anyone should anticipate a national-unity government, or even a Blue and White-led government, will lead to any real peace process with the Palestinians,” Krebs said.
Trump has touted a “deal of the century” to end the enduring enmity between the two sides, but the much-discussed, oft-delayed plan is stalled once again, this time because of Israel’s consecutive elections.
The “deal’s” chief negotiators (including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner) “have us focused on a plan that may never appear, while they are making the possibility of a two-state solution disappear,” Kurtzer wrote in a commentary, “The Illusion of Trump’s Mideast Peace Plan,” that ran in The American Prospect. Of the eventual election outcome, he said that “there is no peace process at the moment, so it won’t have any negative effect on something that’s not happening.” During the delay, Kurtzer added, the administration “has been supporting right-wing Israeli policies on the ground.”
There’s a reason “why Trump is extremely popular in Israel,” Krebs said. “This is the friendliest government they have ever faced in Washington. … They’ve been given a blank check.”
Of course, that face (and the check) may change in Washington, not just in Jerusalem. Joe Biden, Krebs said, would be a return to the Obama era but without the “personal Obama tension” (Elizabeth Warren as president might be a different story, Krebs commented). And yet, strains between the president and prime minister didn’t erode the tight ties between the two nations. “Keep in mind,” Krebs said, “that in the Obama years, on-the-ground cooperation between the American and Israeli security establishment was as strong as ever.”
A new government in Jerusalem might mean a new approach to Washington, too. “The very close relationship Netanyahu led, basically affiliating Israel with the Republican Party — that will come to an end,” Krebs said. “There will be an attempt to re-establish Israel as a matter of bipartisan concern. Whether that can be done, given the water that has flowed under that bridge, is unclear.”
Ultimately, however, the bridges that will matter most will be the ones between Israelis and Palestinians. Unlike its founding years, Israel’s existence isn’t threatened, but its essence is.
“The real issue is going to be the long-term question for the state of Israel,” Kurtzer said.
“What kind of Israel are you looking at; what does Israel see for itself in the future?” he rhetorically asked. “If it doesn’t find a way of accommodating the national aspirations of the Palestinian people in an independent state, is Israel ready to accommodate those Palestinians in a single state, a unitary state? And if so, is it ready to give them the same rights — political, social, economic — as current Israelis have, and then what does that mean when you have almost a 50/50 split in population between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs?”
Putting the campaign in context, Kurtzer concluded, “That’s a question that Israel, back to 1967, has never faced up to.”
Like the campaign banner and the coalition talks, the answer is hanging.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.