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.
If Bibi voted this way it would not only bolster the forces of sanity, it would also be in line with what poll after poll tells us Israelis themselves want: Two-thirds prefer a two-state solution. According to two different opinion surveys conducted in December even a majority of voters affiliated with Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi would approve of a demilarized Palestinian state along the 1967 lines.
Then there’s the Jewish Diaspora. We don’t need to repeat what has become a well-worn litany of reasons for why American Jews — particularly young ones — have grown disillusioned with Israel’s direction. They need a reason to believe that Netanyahu has any interest in peace. A government that included the center-left parties would offer this reassurance.
As it is, those who persist in thinking Netanyahu has any intention of resolving the conflict are hanging on to a very thin thread, namely the speech he gave at Bar-Ilan University just after being sworn in last time, in 2009. His words then were quite clear: “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.”
Were these just empty phrases, forced out of his mouth in order to appease the West? There would no longer be any other conclusion to draw if he chose to empower and validate the extreme right who have only mocked and insulted him for making that Bar Ilan speech.
Before a ballot was cast, it was a foregone conclusion who would be the next prime minister of Israel. Though no one quite imagined that Netanyahu would lose so much of his strength, the tightness of the resilts only makes the choice facing him now that much more stark.
His actions over the past four years have led us to believe that he has no real desire to engage the Palestinians and is comfortable with perpetual conflict. But in one move he could change that perception and offer hope to the majority of the Jewish people who want to believe in an Israel that is not blind to reality, a Jewish state that understands that its future can only be secure if it makes hard, painful choices now to insure its Jewish and democratic nature.
The ultimate referendum is now with Netanyahu. We know how the Israeli people have voted, soon we’ll know in what direction he has decided to take them.