The Israeli electorate has spoken. And the results of the January 22 parliamentary elections were not quite as predictable as expected. For one thing, the supposedly apathetic Israelis turned out in higher numbers than the four previous elections — a victory itself for Israeli democracy. And, Benjamin Netanyahu, though his party (which had combined its list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu) won the largest number of mandates and the opportunity to form a government, was left bruised and reeling. Rather than beginning the coalition-building process from a place of strength, he has to start with only 31 seats as he tries to reach the magic 61-seat majority needed to form a government.
This leaves him with an important task in the coming days: Casting his own vote.
At stake in this choice is not just Israel’s future but whether the Jewish state can maintain its increasingly tenuous relationship with the Diaspora.
Netanyahu can decide to build a governing coalition with the religious parties and his natural allies on the right, now represented by Naftali Bennett’s religious Zionist party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home). By doing so, he would finally make it clear that he does not favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bennett, who with his 11 seats can now command a plum portfolio in such a government, has said he will do everything in his power to make sure the Palestinians never get a state. “No more negotiations,” Bennett frequently intones. “No more illusions.”
Turning to the right would also validate the most extreme voices in Netanyahu’s own Likud-Beiteinu list, individuals like Moshe Feiglin who speak glowingly about retaking the Temple Mount. Of the top twenty new Knesset members in Netanyahu’s party, twelve support at least partial annexation of the West Bank. If Netanyahu joined their voices with those of Bennett’s, the message would be crystal clear: The new government of Israel has officially abandoned the two-state solution.
The prime minister, however, has another option. He can partner with the center-left. If he does more than just reach for a marriage of convenience with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, but actually brings in Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, then this too would send an unequivocal message. The government would be composed of individuals who understand that solving the conflict with the Palestinians is in Israel’s interest. That living in the fantasyland of denial that is the annexation conversation could have dire, even existential, implications for Israel’s future.