Netanyahu's Coalition Loss May Usher in an "Israeli Spring"

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Benjamin Netanyahu's decayed Likud/Beitenu right wing slate limped across the Israeli electoral finish line tonight, leaving a trail of lost Knesset seats in its wake and the loss of incalculable political fortune for the once politically invincible Israeli prime minister.  When the final vote tally emerges, it will surely represent a personal rebuke and a vote of popular no confidence in Netanyahu's leadership.

If exit polls prove accurate when all votes are counted, Netanyahu's coalition party list -- Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu -- will have shed an astounding 11 parliament seats, an unexpected rebuke to Netanyahu by Israeli voters who had grown weary of the paltry Likud campaign diet of half-baked security bravado that belied Israel's growing regional and international isolation and Netanyahu's fixation with disgraced coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman, who had been indicted during the campaign on charges of political corruption.

While Netanyahu will likely get the initial nod from President Shimon Peres to take a run at forging a coalition government, he will face a new Israeli political equation he did not count on:  the emergence of a new generation of secular Israeli political leaders who rode a wave of popular disenchantment against an intolerantly interfering right wing ultra orthodox religious establishment that Netanyahu never ceased to placate when it suited him to do so and which he shamelessly embraced during the campaign to his political detriment.

Coupled with Netanyahu's dangerous political liaison with the brutish Lieberman, and an economy that was increasingly tilted against Israel's own "47 percent" middle class, Israelis had finally had enough of Netanyahu's appeasement of Israel's ultra orthodox minority -- and they took it out on him in spades, costing him over 25 percent of Israel's electorate that he had counted on to ride a wave of political invincibility that would have cemented his leadership and the rule of Likud over Israel's political establishment for years to come.  

Out of nowhere, two new parties have emerged to challenge Netanyahu.  The first, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), founded by popular Israeli journalist Yair Lapid, having come out of nowhere, will likely claim 18-19 seats.  The second, Habayit Hayehudi (Home of the Jew), founded by Netanyahu's former Chief of Staff, Naftali Bennett, is Netanyahu's real spoiler, having taken nearly 12 seats, most from Likud/Beitanu.

Netanyahu expected a different outcome.  When he declared snap elections last October, he was convinced he was invincible, even not-too-subtly implying only he could stand up to a U.S. president to protect Israel's security, something no previous Israeli leader had dared attempt to use as a campaign tactic to win votes -- and it backfired mightily!

Adding to his predicament, Netanyahu's stewardship of Israel's latest military showdown with Hamas drew mixed reviews, and exit polls indicated that a plurality of Israelis recognized that a "rest in peace process" starved of oxygen by Netanyahu's pro-settlement policies, required some modicum of Israeli life support to prevent a dangerous break with Washington just when 2013 was emerging as the Iran nuclear program year of decision.      

Netanyahu now has few choices before him.  He can either resort to forging an extremist religiously intolerant right wing coalition that had been repudiated by the majority of Israelis, or offer Lapid a deal that would entice his party and perhaps other moderate parties into a more centrist coalition government.

So, in this shifting Israeli political reality the new king-maker is certainly not the dethroned Bibi, but Israel's new internet era progressive populist, the respected, mild-mannered, but politically callow Lapid, whose party ran on a reform platform to defang the ultra-orthodox and compel their military service, reform Israel's crazy-quilted election system, and end Netanyahu's abhorrent pro-settlement policies.

Lapid's ascendancy comes at a crucial time in Israel's history.  Is it possible that a politically damaged Netanyahu will seize the opportunity accorded by a more centrist Israeli government to repair relations with the Palestinians and Washington, or risk losing his coalition partner?   Time will tell and no one knows what Netanyahu will really do when forced to pivot.

In Netanyahu's diminished political horizon the choices may no longer be his alone to make.  Rather than leading, he may be the one who is led by a long suffering Israeli silent, moderate majority coalescing to assert its historical role as the natural arbiter of Israel's future -- both domestically and internationally.  While he will be prime minister, it will not be the long sought third term victory lap for Bibi.  That fact alone opens up a new horizon that should compel Israel's persistent and impossibly partial critics to pause and assess what Israel's new no-longer-silent majority compels from their new government.

Today's vote could very well usher in Israel's own "Israeli Spring."
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