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Israelis weren’t the only ones watching election returns on March 17. Bay Area scholars, Jewish community activists and Israeli ex-pats also kept an eye on the tally as results poured in.
U.C. Berkeley political science professor Ron Hassner, in Israel on sabbatical, attributed the Zionist Union defeat to “doubts among some Israelis about the left’s leadership potential. The two left-wing leaders [Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni] are not the kind of traditional prime minister material Israelis are used to voting for. No military background and not particularly charismatic.”
Rabbi Brian Lurie, former CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and current board president of the New Israel Fund, attributed the late surge of Likud to Benjamin Netanyahu’s sharply right-wing rhetoric in the waning days of the campaign.
Now he fears Netanyahu may stand by those statements and shift Israeli policy dramatically to the right.
“The guy obviously is a master politician, but the question is: At what expense?” Lurie said. “If he stays true to these last statements about no two-state solution and denigrating 20 percent of Israel’s citizens [the Arabs], he will do irreparable damage to the state of Israel.”
Israel native Eran Kaplan, the Rhoda and Richard Goldman Chair in Israeli Studies at San Francisco State University, observed that Likud won by taking seats away from the Jewish Home, another right-wing party.
The professor, who held an election day viewing party with his students, also noted that while the right-wing parties won roughly the same percentage of the vote that they did in 2013, the difference this time was that Likud took a bigger share of that vote. That gives Netanyahu leverage to form the cabinet he wants, he added.
“The main campaign on the left and center was to change the government and get rid of Netanyahu,” Kaplan said. “They ran on very little else.”
Kaplan believes Netanyahu might have made his life more difficult when he “took a turn to the right” with his inflammatory rhetoric late in the campaign — warning voters about increased Arab-Israeli turnout, promising new construction in eastern Jerusalem and proclaiming there would be no two-state solution on his watch.
“It’s poking the eye of the Obama administration,” Kaplan said. “We don’t know what kind of pressures he will feel from international community, but I know [the turn right] paid dividends for his party.”
Though the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama is much talked about, former KGO radio host John Rothmann isn’t worried about that. A close observer of Israeli politics, Rothmann said bilateral relations will remain strong no matter who is Israel’s prime minister.
“Relations remain firm, solid, with no daylight between them,” he said. “Is there a personality clash? There’s a history of tensions between [Israeli] prime ministers and presidents. But the United States and Israel have a close intelligence, military and diplomatic relationship, and are on the same page on critical issues, so I honestly don’t think a clash of personality matters.”
Rothmann said one of the most notable results of the election was the strong showing of the Arab parties’ Joint List, which came in third with a projected 13 seats. Even though those parties won’t join a Netanyahu government, their showing was the ultimate tribute to Israeli democracy, Rothmann said.
“This displays a vibrant, vital Israeli democracy in action,” he said. “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and it has demonstrated that with this election.”
David Kadosh, the new Bay Area–based executive director of the Zionist Organization of America’s West Coast division, viewed the results as an indicator of what Israeli voters care about most.
“Likud ran completely on a foreign-policy platform,” Kadosh said. “The Zionist Union ran on domestic policies. What we see in American politics in times of war is that the incumbent usually wins. People vote for continued leadership at a time of increased pressure. It’s an indication of the stress put on Israel. It means the threats against Israel are grave.”
While previous Netanyahu coalitions and cabinets have included centrist parties, Likud’s margin of victory this week means Netanyahu could forego those sorts of alliances if he chooses.
Lurie, however, does not believe that will happen.
“The Bibi I have seen as prime minister has always been cautious and usually a pragmatist,” he said. “Whether that will come out in choosing his partners remains to be seen. If it is the far- right religious [parties], he’ll have to really commit to what he said [shortly] before the election. But his comfort zone is ambivalence. If he goes with [only] the right, I don’t think he’s in his comfort zone.”
Kadosh agrees. “I think Netanyahu wants the strongest coalition possible,” he said, “and he will reach out to other parties. I don’t think he will have a government of only of right-wing parties. At the end of the day, he’s a prime minister and he will do what is in Israel’s best interests.”