If liberal American Jews weren’t already dismayed by the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shoe-in to be reelected, the latest political news out of Israel may give them conniption fits.
The results of new polls show Netanyahu’s Likud and its coalition partners are set to exceed the strong governing majority they had in the current Knesset. But the really interesting numbers are those that show the main party to the right of the Likud – the Jewish Home Party – is on track to be the third largest in the next parliament with only Likud and Labor (set to finish a distant second) ahead of it.
This will give supporters of the settlement movement an even louder voice in the next Knesset than their already healthy contingent in the current one – a development that will be interpreted by some on the left as a sign of Israel’s depravity or indifference to peace.
But the reason for it is clear. Whereas in Israel’s past it could be asserted that the Likud represented Israel’s right-wing constituency, it has, to the shock and dismay of many in the left-wing Israeli media, become the center. That is not because more Israelis are supporters of increasing settlement throughout the West Bank. They are not. Rather it is due to the fact that the Israeli center as well as even many on what we used to call the Israeli left have given up on the Palestinians.
They know that neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza will ever recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. So they have abandoned those parties that hold onto the illusion of peace in favor of those with a more realistic vision while those on the right are now embracing parties like Jewish Home in order to hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire and prevent him from making concessions that will neither entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table nor increase Israel’s popularity abroad.
Jewish Home is the beneficiary, in part, of the merger of the Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. The polls show that not only will Likud not win as many seats as the two parties combined got in the last election, but will probably lose several as some nationalist voters abandon the new conglomerate for its more ideological rival to the right.
Though the enlarged Likud will still gain several seats from the mark it won in the 2009 vote that brought Netanyahu back into power and make it by far the largest in the Knesset with 35, Jewish Home is set to get 12 with another pro-settlement party getting two more. That will double the number of seats those smaller parties won four years ago. Combined with the Orthodox religious parties, it will give Netanyahu nearly 70 seats out of 120 next year even before any of the centrist members join him, as some undoubtedly will do.
Jewish Home also has the advantage of a new leader in 40-year-old Naftali Bennett. He is the son of American immigrants who is a former chief of staff to Netanyahu and who earned great wealth through the sale of his Internet security firm. In him, Israel’s nationalist camp now has an articulate and savvy figure who can say things about the Palestinians that Netanyahu cannot for fear of worsening relations with the United States.
Bennett’s powerful position, which will be enhanced by a Cabinet portfolio that he will demand and get, will make the next Knesset harder for Netanyahu to manage. The absence of several Likud moderates who have been replaced by more nationalist and younger figures on the party’s Knesset list will also ensure that the prime minister will not be straying far from the wishes of his voters the way some of his predecessors have done.
This won’t necessarily mean that Netanyahu will move to build throughout the West Bank the way Bennett would like. But it will strengthen his resolve to continue to do so in Jerusalem and its suburbs as well as the major settlement blocs that Israel will hold onto even in the theoretical scenario where the Palestinians finally give in and accept a two-state solution.