Israeli Elections

Editor’s note: In an interview with Owen Bennett-Jones of BBC World Service, Natan Sachs discusses the potential outcomes of the elections in Israel. Read an excerpt below.

Owen Bennett-Jones: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn’t mentioned in the Obama second inauguration speech. Will the outcome of the Israeli election mean that Washington does put more time into the issue? What do you think the White House will make of this result?

Natan Sachs: It is one of the worst kept secrets in DC that the White House secretly would have preferred Netanyahu to lose these elections, but they had been realistic. They knew that Netanyahu was probably going to win. By and large they are going to try and keep a holding pattern – continue the same sort of approach – not much engagement, I would suspect on the Palestinian issue at least from the White House, although the State Department may be a different issue, and continued focus of course on Iran and its nuclear program.

Bennett-Jones: Let’s stay with that State Department issue. John Kerry coming in there, what are you expecting different from him? Does he want to do something on the Middle East, do you think?

Sachs: Well it remains to be seen, but the talk here in Washington is that Senator Kerry, now Secretary-designate Kerry, if he is confirmed, which he probably will be, would like to move on the Palestinian issue, and would like to push possibly forcibly. He is of course very experienced in foreign policy from the Senate and from before, but there is a disagreement between him and many in the White House who see it differently. The Obama White House was badly burned by their experience early in the first Obama term, where they pushed forcefully for a resolution of the conflict on the Palestinian issue and essentially were rebuffed by almost all parties involved – the Israelis, the Palestinians, and also their Arab partners outside of the Palestinians. So there is probably much more skepticism in the White House about reengaging forcefully for final status resolution at this point in time when it seems quite unlikely to be successful.

Bennett-Jones: Right, so even though these elections are surprising in many ways and do change things within Israel quite a bit, they don’t change it much on that issue – on the Palestinian issue.

Sachs: Not for the time being. Most things in Israel will probably remain the same, in the sense that the leader is the same and foreign policy is mostly set in the prime minister’s office. But the instability that you are hearing about from Israel is profound, and it may mean that things could change within Obama’s term. It may not be the last election in Israel that we see during Obama’s presidency, and Obama may be able to deal with a very different political reality in Israel and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East before his term is through.

Bennett-Jones: That’s a very interesting thought. You’re saying because of the way this is working out it may be quite a short term government.

Sachs: Absolutely. Remember in Israel short terms are the norm. Actually this term, which was a four year term was shortened from its original due date – October 2013 – but even so it was a long term by Israeli standards. Generally, in recent decades two or three years are not unheard of. With this kind of unstable coalition that includes polarized parties, and includes backbenchers, both in Netanyahu’s own Likud and in the right-wing Bennett’s party, who are very radical and very different from the positions that Netanyahu may want to take with Washington, we may see that the coalition cannot withstand external pressure.
But all of this depends on several other key issues in the region stabilizing within the next two or three years – Iran most notably, but also the civil war in Syria and instability in Sinai and potential threats to the Palestinian Authority and perhaps the regime in Jordan.

Bennett-Jones: Tell us about Iran – What does this result mean for that?

Sachs: It is hard to say at the moment, partly because the Iranian issue is not parallel to the Palestinian one in Israel. Hawks on the Palestinian issue are not necessarily hawks on the Iran issue and vice versa. It does mean that Netanyahu does not come with the same kind of strength around him that he had earlier, and as we saw even during his previous term where he had a much stronger position, there was fierce opposition within the security establishment and within the political establishment against his more hawkish approach on Iran. A weakened political situation may hurt his ability to act unilaterally, but it may also mean that Netanyahu moves closer to the position of the United States. But it is important to remember – Iran for Netanyahu is the number one issue bar none. This is what he sees as the defining question of his legacy and on this issue the Prime Minister is likely to take the lead. By and large these things are determined, after all, in the prime minister’s office and not elsewhere.