Roger Cohen

An uneasy coalition for Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving a speech on Wednesday at the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, following his party Likud's victory in Israel's general election. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving a speech on Wednesday at the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, following his party Likud's victory in Israel's general election. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

If the Israeli election was above all a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he prevailed. After accumulating nine years in office over three terms, that is a measure of his political guts, however limited his political achievements.

But his victory revealed deep divisions in Israeli society, and a long season of Israeli uncertainty now looks inevitable, despite cries of triumph from Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party.

After a bitter campaign, voters converged on the two major parties, a measure of the widespread sense that Israel's future was at stake. Mr Netanyahu seemed to have won about 30 seats, ahead of the estimated 24 seats of Mr Isaac Herzog, the leader of the centre-left Zionist Union. How a government coalition would be put together in the 120-seat Knesset and who would lead it remained an open question that is likely to take weeks of haggling to resolve.

An election of uncertain outcome has already clarified certain things. The world, and certainly the White House, may be tired of Mr Netanyahu, his fear-mongering and posturing, but his hawkish defiance and dismissal (now explicit) of a Palestinian state reflect a wide section of Israeli society that has given up on a two-state outcome and prefers its Palestinians invisible behind barriers. "Bibi, king of Israel," went supporters' chants after the vote. He is not a monarch but he sure looms large.

"Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge numbers to the polling stations," Mr Netanyahu said in a video released as votes were cast. To the last, he played on fear and incendiary division. It worked.

But many Israelis are tired of Mr Netanyahu's games; they embrace a different idea of Israel. That, too, became clear in this election and is of equal importance. Mr Herzog, in forming the Zionist Union with Ms Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, brought the moderate Israeli left back from the brink and, through the name of his movement, asserted a distinction critical to Israel's future: Only a Zionism that preserves Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the image of its founders, can secure the nation's long-term future.

The contrast with the Messianic Zionism of the right, with its religious-nationalist claim to all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, was clear. Mr Herzog, unlike Mr Netanyahu, is serious about the idea of two states, because the alternative is the progressive corrosion of Israel's democratic ideals as it attempts to control the lives of millions of non-voting Palestinians in the West Bank.

The phenomenon of the election was Mr Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who became wildly popular in office by liberalising Israel's cellphone market and reducing customers' bills. His success in getting nine or 10 seats at the head of a new party called Kulanu ("All of us") turned him into a possible kingmaker. It was also indicative of the frustrations of Israelis: with their successful but increasingly unequal economy, with corruption and with business as usual. Mr Kahlon has said he will wait for final results before indicating his allegiance but suggested it was a "time to unite".

It will fall to President Reuven Rivlin to invite Mr Netanyahu to try to form a stable coalition. He has indicated his preference for the outcome, saying "I am convinced only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel's democracy and new elections in the near future". But a unity government is anathema to Mr Netanyahu and Mr Herzog, at least up to now.

Reality may, however, catch up with them. A Netanyahu-led right-wing government will face growing international isolation, especially because of the Prime Minister's open commitment to stop the emergence of a Palestinian state. Repairing relations with US President Barack Obama would be arduous. A hardening of America's position towards Israel at the United Nations cannot be ruled out if West Bank settlements continue to expand. Israelis, for all their nation's extraordinary success, know how critical the alliance with the US is; they are unhappy with the Netanyahu-Obama rift. A government of the right would more likely exacerbate than overcome that estrangement over the next few years.

For Mr Herzog, in the light of the right's strong performance, the path to a centre-left-led government looks blocked - and achieving anything with such a government even more so. He would not have the muscle to bring real change on the central challenge facing Israel in its relations with the world: the Palestinian conflict. He did well but not well enough to bring about the "post-Bibi era" that he sought.

As with Churchill's words on democracy, a national unity coalition now looks like the worst form of government for Israel, except for all the others. It could curtail Mr Netanyahu's hubris while giving Mr Herzog heft, a desirable double whammy.