Thoughts on the Israeli Election

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, March 19, 2015, 8:47 AM

Over at the increasingly excellent Markaz site, my Brookings colleagues Natan Sachs and William Galston---the latter writing with Lawfare's Yishai Schwartz---have terrific commentary on the Israeli elections this week. I will not try to repeat here their many good analytical points about the surprise results. I will, rather, refer readers to their posts and add one point of my own.

For me, the salient---one might say searing---fact about the Israeli election is this: Bibi Netanyahu won, and won decisively, (a) after going to Washington to campaign against the President of the United States, (b) after unpardonably questioning the legitimacy of voting by the one fifth of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Arabs, and (c) after repudiating the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This fact will, I fear, reverberate loudly and for a long time in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Each of these components of Netanyahu's victory will have its dissenters, diminishers, and apologists, I'm sure. Netanyahu's distasteful entry into American party politics, some will argue, was animated by justified alarm at the Iranian negotiations. His election day questioning of Arab voters was a heat of the moment kind of thing, regrettable but not game-changing. And his abandonment of the two-state solution as the policy objective of talks with the Palestinians is irrelevant since there's no prospect of those talks leading anywhere anyway.

Each of these points is probably worth an argument, yet the cumulative impact---it seems to me---seems to me hard to deny: The way Netanyahu won will matter a lot.

The New York Times reports this morning that the election returns in Israel were "watched minute-by-minute at the White House." It also reports that Obama has basically given up on dealing with Netanyahu, turning over the portfolio to Secretary of State John Kerry:

“The president is a pretty pragmatic person and if he felt it would be useful, he will certainly engage,” said a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified while discussing Mr. Obama’s opinions of Mr. Netanyahu. “But he’s not going to waste his time.”

It reports as well that in light of Netanyahu's rejection of a two-state solution, the administration is reconsidering whether to support the latest U.N. Security Council resolution, which would identify the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations on a Palestinian state:

And with Mr. Netanyahu’s last-minute turnaround against a Palestinian state alongside Israel, several administration officials said that the Obama administration may now agree to passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution embodying principles of a two-state solution that would be based on the pre-1967 lines between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip and mutually agreed swaps.

Most foreign policy experts say that Israel would have to cede territory to the Palestinians in exchange for holding on to major Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank.

Such a Security Council resolution would be anathema to Mr. Netanyahu. Although the principles are United States policy, until now officials would never have endorsed them in the United Nations because the action would have been seen as too antagonistic to Israel.

“The premise of our position internationally has been to support direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” a senior White House official said. “We are now in a reality where the Israeli government no longer supports direct negotiations. Therefore we clearly have to factor that into our decisions going forward.”

The specific issues in controversy may blow over. The Iranian deal could fall apart, after all, and Netanyahu could be forced to accept it if it comes to fruition.

But the larger problem will not go away, and we should be frank about what this larger problem is: Netanyahu has, with almost unfathomable recklesslessness, shaken several of the pillars of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

He came to Washington to team up with Obama's political opponents and publicly undermine the administration's security policies, thus challenging one of the strategic premises of the alliance and making a partisan issue over U.S. support for Israel.

His abandonment of the two-state solution, meanwhile, creates a gulf with the United States over the long-term objective of talks with the Palestinians, the very strategic aim of policy---a matter the White House was quick to address yesterday. From Press Secretary Josh Earnest's press briefing:

[I]t has been the policy of the United States for more than 20 years that a two-state solution is the goal of resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinian people. And that two-state solution has been pursuit of a democratic and Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. That has been the policy of the United States under both Democratic and Republican Presidents.

In the context of the recent election, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated a change in his position.  And based on those comments, the United States will evaluate our approach to the situation moving forward.

Perhaps most upsettingly, Netanyahu's race-baiting get-out-the-vote statement on Election Day frankly frays the democratic values affinities that undergird the entire US-Israel relationship. It has been a long time, after all, since US politicians felt it acceptable to appeal to their voters on the theory that an enemy race was voting and their votes were needed to counteract those votes. Yet I'm not sure how else to read Netanyahu's claim Tuesday that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out. . . . [W]e have only you. Get out to vote, bring your friends and family, vote Likud in order to close the gap between us and 'Labor.'"

This statement also prompted a sharp response from the White House. Earnest yesterday brought it up on his own and said the following:

[T]here has been a lot of coverage in the media about some of the rhetoric that emerged yesterday that was propagated by the Likud Party to encourage turnout of their supporters that sought to, frankly, marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens.  The United States and this administration is deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens.

It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.  We’ve talked a lot about how our shared values are an important part of what binds our two countries together, and rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive.  And I can tell you that these are views that the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.

U.S.-Israeli relations have had their ups and downs before.

But the consequences of the way Netanyahu won will be significant. And I fear they will be long-lasting as well.