Benjamin Netanyahu won a fairly convincing victory in the Israeli elections held on 17 March, although it was probably the most difficult of his political career, while the biggest loser in the elections was... Barack Obama. There are many moments that the Israelis will remember about these elections, but first and foremost they will remember the unprecedented degree of US intervention in the affairs of their country.
Washington openly backed the opponents of the current government, the left-of-centre Zionist Union formed by the Israeli Labour Party (HaAvoda) and headed by Isaac Herzog. According to local experts, a considerable proportion of Israeli journalists were fully mobilised to support the union. Pollsters constantly reported that «people are tired of Bibi» and longing for change, promising Likud’s downfall and huge victory for the Zionist Union. The US administration made it perfectly clear who it wanted to see in power in Israel. Millions of US dollars were spent on propaganda under the slogan «Just not Bibi».
It reached the point where the US Senate launched an official inquiry into suspicions regarding the financial intervention of the Obama administration in the Israeli elections, and it has been suggested that funds from abroad entered the country through well-known organisations like the New Israel Fund and One Voice. The main coordinator of all these activities was the specially created NGO Victory 2015 headed by Jeremy Bird, Barack Obama’s former adviser. For its part, the Zionist Union, with a confident lead over Likud just a few days before the elections judging by the polls, brought to the fore its main proposition of fully restoring relations with the United States. And that was its fatal mistake. It turns out it is not just Arab countries that are tired of Obama’s Middle East policy, but also America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier, Israel.
So why did Washington, which has studiously avoided any unnecessary bias toward particular Israeli political forces in the past to avoid upsetting the fragile balance between them, act so rashly this time? Officially, the fact is that unlike Likud, the opposition were supposedly ready to revitalise the Middle East peace process. If you take a closer look at the positions of the Zionist Union’s leaders, however, you can see that aside from verbally expressing their willingness to resume talks with the Palestinians, many of them had no intention of granting them any significant concessions.
The reasons for Obama’s dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s politics are largely personal. The leader of Likud, for example, has made no secret of the fact that he considers the results of the current US administration’s activities in the Middle East, including the incitement of the notorious Arab Spring, to be catastrophic. He has also fiercely contested, including during his public address to the US Congress, the White House’s secretive attempts to reach agreements with Iran on the issue of its nuclear dossier and the lifting of sanctions. Apparently, Obama is also unable to forgive Netanyahu for the fact that the Israeli prime minister openly supported Obama’s opponent Mitt Romney during the US presidential campaign and even appeared in the Republican candidate’s pre-election video with the slogan: «The world needs American strength, not apologies». How Obama’s wounded pride is influencing US foreign policy is already becoming a serious international subject in its own right.
Differences of opinion between the two strategic allies are also arising on more substantial issues. Among other things, Israel, which is becoming a major gas producer, is not exactly happy about America’s shale revolution and US dumping into the global energy market. They undermine the profitability of Israeli developments and mean that gas exports from Israel cannot be relied upon, especially in view of competition from Iran.
With 99 percent of the votes counted, the Likud party won 30 seats (exactly one and a half times more than was expected), and the Zionist Union garnered 24. In comparison to its representation in the outgoing Knesset, Likud has grown by 40 per cent in these elections. It is the biggest surge for the party since 1981.
The Arab Israeli Joint List won 14 seats, Yesh Atid won 11, Kulanu won 10, The Jewish Home won 8, Shas won 7, United Torah Judaism won 6, Our Home Israel won 6, and Meretz won 5. It is interesting that the Russian-speaking aliyah voted en masse for Likud, as evidenced by the relatively modest results of Our Home Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman, who positioned himself as the representative of their interests. It is known that US influence in this sphere, and the influence of Barack Obama personally, is particularly low. Worried about the possible victory of a Washington-oriented centre left, their voters believed it was more important in the current campaign to support Likud. Besides that, the Zionist Union has obviously not been augmented with ‘Russians’. Its only Russian candidate, Arabist Ksenia Svetlova, was ranked just 21st in the alliance’s electoral list. In the meantime, Likud includes the speaker of the 19th Knesset Yuli Edelstein and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, both natives of the former Soviet Union, who are third and eighth on the list respectively.
Before the elections, there was talk of the inevitability of a government of national unity forming in Israel made up of members from both camps, the right and the left. Despite statements by a number of senior Likud deputies that Netanyahu had no intention of creating such a government, many alleged that Likud and the Zionist Union were close to an agreement on the creation of such a cabinet after the elections. It was reported, for example, that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was fully prepared to support this option and even preferred it. However, Netanyahu’s convincing victory means he can expect the formation of a more uniform ‘national-religious’ ruling coalition, which he will more than likely create. He has already stated that he has held talks with the leaders of parties he wants to see in a coalition – Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), his former Likud ally Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Our Home Israel) and the leaders of the religious parties Shas (Sephardim) and United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazim). According to Netanyahu, he is planning to «immediately begin forming a government in order to complete the task within two to three weeks». The future coalition will at least be able to rely on 67 of the 120 members of the Knesset, which by Israel’s standards is considered relatively stable.
Another surprise of the elections was the good outcome for political parties that represent Arab Israeli citizens outside of the occupied territories. They ran on a single list for the first time and seated a record number of their deputies (14) in parliament. PLO Central Committee member Mustafa Barghouti viewed the consolidation of Palestinians within Israel, despite their ideological differences, as «a historic step that they could perhaps use to achieve their rights». The voice of Palestinians will now perhaps carry more weight in the Knesset.
On 18 March, one of the central figures in Palestine and a confidant of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, commented on the results of the Israeli elections rather critically. He believes that «Netanyahu’s victory shows there is no partner for peace in Israel». So the situation in the region could worsen once again. On the same day, Hamas’ international spokesman, Husam Badran, also reacted to Likud’s victory. He called for the «Palestinian Authority and Fatah to immediately cease cooperating with the occupation regime with regard to security and implement solutions for the restoration of Palestinian unity more vigorously». According to Saeb Erekat, PLO leaders will meet on 19 March to discuss implementing the decision of the organisation’s central committee to suspend security cooperation with Israel.
It is also expected that having convincingly confirmed his mandate, Netanyahu will increase pressure on the Obama administration on many issues on the Middle East agenda, including calling for a response to its not altogether correct behaviour during the recent elections. And in view of the rather considerable influence of the Jewish lobby in the US, this will make it even more difficult for Washington to carry out its already extremely knotty Middle East policy.