Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) delivers a speech next to his wife Sara as he reacts to exit poll figures in Israel's parliamentary elections late on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty

Netanyahu has a big mess to clean up


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out all the stops to win Tuesday’s election – but his victory has come at a tremendous cost to him and, more importantly, to Israel.

In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu renounced the two-state solution and whipped up nationalist sentiment. On Election Day, he resorted to fear tactics that crossed the line into racism, exhorting his followers to get to the polls because “the Arabs are voting in droves.”

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These tactics worked, shifting around 150,000 votes mainly from other right-wing parties to Netanyahu’s Likud, and allowing him to open up a six-seat margin over Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, his center-left opponent.

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The Prime Minister’s outrageous statements may have pushed him from 19% in the polls before the election to 23% on election night. Now, he can form a coalition that will lean heavily on ultra-nationalists and the ultra-orthodox, and will be the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

Still, he cannot claim a broad mandate. Seventy two percent of Israelis on the eve of the election felt the country was headed in the wrong direction, and only one-third of Israel’s voters supported the hard-right, a number roughly comparable to last election. 

Without question, those of us who care about Israel should respect its democracy and the outcome of the election. We can and should celebrate the vibrancy of debate and dissent in Israel over essential matters that was on full display during the campaign. And contrary to Netanyahu’s panicked attack on the participation of Arab citizens in the election, we should welcome the increased participation of Arab citizens as a positive sign.

But the policies Netanyahu articulated in order to win – outright rejection of the two-state solution and territorial compromise – are unacceptable to the international community, including the United States, and will deepen Israel’s growing international isolation. They are also unacceptable to a clear majority of American Jews.

The manner in which Netanyahu secured his victory – shredding the broad bipartisanship that underpins American political support for Israel and preying on fear and racism at home – also demonstrated that he willingly put his own political interests before his concern for Israel’s relationship with the United States and his commitment to Israel’s democratic character.

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Netanyahu may well feel compelled to walk back some of his statements in order to patch up relations with Washington. But he cannot truly unsay what was said. He and the next government should be judged on their actions. If they push ahead with settlements in the occupied West Bank, they should be held to account.

Ironically, a hard-right Israeli government may well liberate many in the American Jewish community to speak out more freely. It is no longer going to be so easy to argue that support for Israel should require supporting every action of the Israeli government.

“The policies Netanyahu articulated in order to win are unacceptable to the international community, including the United States, and will deepen Israel’s growing international isolation.”
My organization, J Street, will stand up strongly and proudly in American political and Jewish communal debates for an end to occupation, for a two-state solution and for an Israel that is committed to its core democratic principles and Jewish values.

We will speak out on behalf of the majority of American supporters of Israel – Jewish and not – who support a two-state solution and oppose moves to limit the rights of any Israeli citizens or to deny the collective right of the Palestinian people to self-determination in a state of their own.

Faced with a return to power of a prime minister who has publicly demonstrated that he does not share those beliefs, we will advocate strongly that the American Jewish community must maintain and even more actively promote its commitment to the core principles and policies that have been bedrocks of the U.S.-Israel relationship for decades.

This election is over. But the battle for Israel’s future – its security, its role as a Jewish homeland, and its democratic character – is just beginning. 

Alan Elsner is Vice President for Communications for J Street.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel

Netanyahu has a big mess to clean up