What the Israeli election means for the peace process

The peace process was only a minor factor in the campaign. But the centre and left proved robust in the election.

Election results in a real democracy are unknowable in advance, and the Israeli electorate is especially fickle. Even so, the results of yesterday’s legislative elections have surprised almost everyone.

Analysts and commentators — backed up by polling data — predicted a shift rightwards. And to be sure, the right did enjoy some success. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc won a plurality of seats with 31 out of a possible 120, but far fewer than the two parties won separately last time around. And a new right-wing force, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, has burst onto Israel’s political scene with 11 seats. Bennett is firmly opposed to the creation a Palestinian state, and wants Israel to formally annex a big chunk of the West Bank.

But the biggest surge belonged to the centrist Yesh Atid party, led by former television journalist Yair Lapid. It finished second, with 19 seats. Lapid aimed his campaign at Israel’s broadly secular middle class, whose members worry about the cost of living, the quality of Israel’s public services, and especially the lack of affordable housing. Significantly, he is confronting Israel’s growing community of ultra-orthodox Jews by arguing that they too must serve in the army and work for a living. (Many choose extended study instead.)

Netanyahu will have the first shot at forming a government in a coalition with other parties. But he returns greatly weakened and will have to make concessions to the partners who join him.

Much depends on whom Netanyahu approaches first. He could conceivably pursue a deal with Bennett and the ultra-orthodox parties, But Netanyahu has said he will seek a broad coalition, which means he’ll likely need Yesh Atid. Lapid holds a lot of cards.

So what does all this mean for the prospects of peace with the Palestinians? Not as much as it might at first seem.

On the one hand, Israel’s centre and left has shown itself to be more robust than many had thought. Lapid has said he won’t join a government that isn’t committed to reviving the currently moribund peace talks. This, for those who believe a two-state solution is in the best interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, is good news.

But it may not be that consequential. Palestinians and the peace process were only minor factors in this election.

Lapid stressed basic quality-of-life issues, rather than territorial or security ones. The Labour party, which finished third, once pushed hard for peace with the Palestinians. This election, under leader Shelly Yachimovich, it barely mentioned them. Even Bennett, according to Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy in Washington, was appealing at least in part because of his youth, business success, and charisma, rather than his views on Palestinian statehood.

Israelis have perhaps grown cynical about negotiating with the Palestinians. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is seen as a write-off. Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah in the West Bank, is a more plausible partner. But Netanyahu ignores him. Israel’s relations with Palestinians in the West Bank are mostly calm, meaning many Israelis don’t feel there’s much urgency to strike a deal. There is only modest reason to believe this will now change.

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