The dissolution of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, just a day after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sacked two senior cabinet ministers, marks a surprising turnabout. Indeed, when Israelis vote again in March, more than two years ahead of schedule, Netanyahu could be voted out of office, with important implications not only for Israel, but also for the wider Middle East.
Until last summer, Netanyahu appeared politically unassailable. His coalition government, despite some internal bickering, was expected to serve out its term. Not even 10% of Israelis would have preferred the opposition leader, the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Herzog, as Prime Minister.
Things began to unravel when two cabinet ministers abruptly resigned, citing family commitments or policy disagreements. Then came the inconclusive war in Gaza, which, given Netanyahu’s unfulfilled pledge to “crush Hamas, ” undermined his credibility, especially when ministers like Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist-religious Jewish Home party, openly challenged his policies.
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When some European parliaments voted in 2014 to recognize Palestine as an independent state, many Israelis, who had long blamed the Palestinians for the continued failure of peace talks, began to worry. More significant, Netanyahu’s public clashes with US President Barack Obama fueled concerns among Israelis – including supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud party – that their government’s policies were deepening Israel’s isolation and thus undermining its security.
The domestic situation is not much better. Netanyahu has failed to fulfill his promises since the massive demonstrations of 2011 to address prohibitively high living costs, especially for young couples. On the contrary, housing prices have continued to rise. When Yair Lapid – the ambitious but inept finance minister, who leads the centrist Yesh Atid party – proposed waiving the value-added tax on first apartment purchases by young couples, Netanyahu failed to respond decisively, giving the impression that he lacked control over his own cabinet.
But it was Netanyahu’s support for draft legislation seeking to constitutionalize Israel’s identity as the Jewish people’s nation-state – to the detriment of Israel’s Muslim, Christian, and Druze citizens – that brought the situation to a head. The bill, which emphasizes Israel’s Jewish identity above its democratic principles, has caused deep divisions not only among the electorate, but also within the government coalition.
Netanyahu, with his weak and vacillating leadership exposed, sacked his opponents, Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (who also denounced Netanyahu’s settlement-construction plans), and called for new elections. But the real game changer was the declaration by Herzog and Livni, who leads the small centrist Hatnuah party, that their parties would run jointly in the elections. If they win, they will rotate in the prime minister’s post.
This changed Israeli political discourse almost overnight. Far from invincible, Netanyahu is now viewed as a failed prime minister, confronted by a center-left bloc that may well become the most powerful voice in the Knesset. Yesh Atid voters, who have been disappointed by Lapid’s failure to deliver the “new politics” of efficiency and transparency that he promised, may supply the Herzog-Livni alliance with the necessary votes.
Some of the moderate orthodox parties, which have been undergoing their own internal splits, have also signaled their willingness to work with a center-left bloc that might enable Israel to make real progress. Even Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, is now criticizing Netanyahu for alienating the US and has suggested that he would not rule out joining a centrist government.
All of this bodes well for the Herzog-Livni alliance. But three months is a long time in politics. Netanyahu may be a dismal prime minister; but he is also a formidable campaigner. And if the centrist alliance finishes first in the election, it will still need coalition partners to form a majority in the Knesset. Gaining fewer than 30 of its 120 seats might drive it to seek potential partners among the orthodox – an approach that could alienate moderate secular voters.
Moreover, once in power, the Herzog-Livni alliance would be met with serious challenges – beginning with reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Given that the Palestinians’ political leadership is divided between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which has established an Islamic fundamentalist regime in Gaza, a deal between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would mean little.
Nonetheless, a Herzog-Livni government would bring significant change, particularly in terms of relations with Europe and the US. Netanyahu’s provocative policies and statements, which have undermined support for Israel among even its closest allies, would be supplanted by a willingness to negotiate in earnest and make genuine concessions.
Such a shift would reinvigorate hope among Israelis – and not a moment too soon. There is a growing realization in Israel that it is time to chart a new path.
Netanyahu, always eager to impress upon the Israeli public the impossibility of making peace with the Palestinians, failed to address the question of what kind of country Israel will become if it continues to rule millions of people against their will. This is what has turned so many people in the West against Israel, leading some to question its very legitimacy. If Zionism means eternal dominion over the Palestinians, is it really worthy of support?
The Herzog-Livni alliance has tentatively named itself the “Zionist Camp.” It may not be catchy (and it is likely to be changed), but it expresses an essential truth: Zionism is about the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, not about the permanent domination of another people. One hopes that Israeli voters recognize this in March.
Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. His most recent book is Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.