Israelis Vote for Continuity on Foreign and Defense Policy

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

It was an election whose results stunned pundits both in Israel and abroad, a “wide and deep repudiation” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as some hastened to claim. And elections, as we know, have consequences. So are major changes expected in Israel’s foreign and defense policy?

In a word, no.

First, though both his own party and the larger bloc he heads lost seats to parties on their left, Netanyahu will remain prime minister. And his views haven’t changed.

Second, he didn’t just win on a technicality. Though voters arguably did repudiate his domestic policies, they actually backed his foreign and defense policies overwhelmingly.

A striking pre-election poll commissioned by the anti-Netanyahu daily Haaretz asked voters which party leader they most trusted to handle various issues. On diplomatic negotiations, an area where many non-Israelis deem him an unmitigated failure, Netanyahu beat his rivals by a margin of more than 2 to 1. On security, his margin of preference was more than 4 to 1 – a tribute to the last four remarkably peaceful years despite the chaos engulfing Israel’s northern and southern neighbors.

As a result, parties that directly opposed Netanyahu’s foreign and defense policies actually fared miserably. Only three even tried to do so: Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s new Hatnuah assailed him for the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks, while Kadima challenged him on Iran. Together, they won a mere 14 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

In contrast, the election’s biggest gainer, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, which, with 19 seats, will be the Knesset’s second largest party, campaigned on foreign policy positions virtually indistinguishable from that of Netanyahu. Lapid gave his major foreign-policy address in the settlement of Ariel to emphasize his insistence on retaining West Bank settlement blocs and termed a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty an “iron rule.”

But precisely because Netanyahu’s reelection was never in doubt – in one pre-election poll, fully 81 percent of respondents said they expected him to be the next premier – Israelis felt free to abandon their traditional preoccupation with foreign and security matters and vote instead on domestic issues. Thus, parties that campaigned mainly on those issues made substantial gains at the expense of parties like Netanyahu’s own Likud, which campaigned mainly on foreign and defense policy.

In part, this was a protest against the neglect of some real domestic problems by Netanyahu’s outgoing government, which devoted most of its energy to foreign affairs and defense. But it was also a tactical vote (as I explain in detail here). Voters opted for parties that would join Netanyahu’s coalition and pressure him from within to enact needed domestic reforms.

So will anything change? Lapid, who is expected to be Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, has said his party will not join a government that does not restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. But the Palestinians still refuse to negotiate unless Israel agrees in advance to base the border on the 1967 lines and freezes all Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – preconditions that are not only unacceptable to Netanyahu, but also irreconcilable with Lapid’s campaign pledges. And while Lapid actually expressed more dovish views in the past, Yesh Atid members say he is very aware that 40 percent to 50 percent of his voters define themselves as leaning right diplomatically, and he does not want to alienate them by veering sharply left. Nor does he want to quit the government before accomplishing any of his promised domestic reforms. Therefore, even if Lapid is a major influence in the new government, it is hard to see anything changing on this front unless the Palestinians miraculously drop their preconditions.

The bigger wild card is Iran. The new government will have a huge number of ministers who have never even served in the Knesset before, much less in the cabinet. This includes all Yesh Atid ministers, most of those from Naftali Bennett’s rightist Jewish Home party (the Knesset’s third-largest, with 12 seats, and almost certainly another key coalition partner), and some from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which ran a joint slate with Likud.

Since these new ministers have never seen the classified intelligence on either Iran’s nuclear program or Israel’s military capabilities – both of which are obviously necessary for an informed decision on military action against Iran – they themselves probably do not know how they would vote should such a decision become necessary.

Nor do their general political leanings offer any clues, since Iran is not an issue that divides along traditional Israeli left-right lines: There are diehard leftists on the Palestinian issue who would support attacking Iran, and unabashed rightists who declare the idea moronic.

Most pundits expect the new cabinet to be more dovish on Iran, since Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who led the hawkish line together with Netanyahu, will likely be leaving. But having just explained why all predictions on this issue are highly speculative, I will go out on a limb and predict the opposite. Here is why:

First, the one consistent thread uniting all Iran hawks is the Holocaust: It is invariably cited by proponents of an attack as the ultimate proof that when people say they intend to annihilate the Jews (or in this case, the Jewish state), they sometimes really mean it, and must therefore be prevented at all costs from acquiring the means to carry out their plans. People for whom this lesson remains vivid are much more likely to support attacking Iran if all else fails. And for Lapid, the child of a Holocaust survivor, I suspect it is very vivid.

Second, with Lieberman standing trial and therefore barred from the cabinet, his number two, Yair Shamir, will become the top cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s other main coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu. Shamir routinely cites his father, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, as his role model on foreign and defense policy. And the elder Shamir strongly supported the Begin Doctrine, which held that Israel, for the reason cited above, must always prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons.

So, while Israel’s election could portend major changes on the domestic front, little is likely to change on foreign and defense policy. After all, elections do have consequences. And on these issues, Israelis voted decisively for continuity.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.