After weeks of wrangling following the general election earlier this month, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is set to become Israel’s Prime Minister for the second time, putting Israel on a potential collision course with its Palestinians partners, its Arab neighbors and perhaps even its American ally.
Though Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party took only second place in the contest, President Shimon Peres asked Netanyahu to form a government on Friday after a majority of the country’s Knesset members backed the Likud leader for the job. Israeli politics has taken a dramatic shift to the right since the war in Gaza, and as a whole, right-wing parties fared better in the election than did the centrist Kadima Party — which finished first by a slim margin — and the crippled leftist Labor Party.
Without enough votes to form a government of his own, Netanyahu will have to build a ruling coalition that will inevitably be fragile. And because Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has ruled out a national-unity government with Likud, Netanyahu will probably look to parties even farther to the right than his own, such as the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and the extreme Yisrael Beitenu Party of Avigdor Lieberman, who supports making Israel’s Arab citizens take a loyalty oath or face losing their voting rights.
But even on his own, Bibi would be a bitter pill for the rest of the region to swallow. Netanyahu ran on a platform that would bring the peace process to a halt. His stated policies would continue the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, would brook no discussion of sharing Jerusalem as a joint capital between Israel and a future Palestinian state and, instead of negotiating for a two-state solution, would focus on “economic peace,” in effect giving Palestinians jobs but not their land.
Netanyahu’s stated agenda would put him at odds with the new Obama Administration in Washington. While Barack Obama has called for negotiations with Iran and Syria, Netanyahu would choose confrontation with both. Netanyahu is against trading the Golan Heights — which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 — in return for a peace treaty with Syria. And instead of talking to Iran about its nuclear program (which Iran insists is for civilian purposes), Netanyahu has said he will prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons by any means necessary, including military strikes.
That Israelis would vote such an agenda into government is a measure of their country’s unwillingness to meet the international consensus that Israel trade land for peace with its neighbors. Ever since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and began launching rockets into Israel, fewer and fewer Israelis see trading land for peace as a sustainable option. Nevertheless, during the Israeli military incursion into Gaza earlier this year, most Israelis were shocked to find that public opinion in Europe and the U.S. did not automatically support what they considered an appropriate act of self-defense. A Netanyahu government may end up merely giving last rites to a peace process that is already almost dead.