WASHINGTON — The results of Tuesday’s election will have important implications for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks very likely to put together a narrow coalition of right-wing and religious parties like the team he led in the previous Knesset — a scenario that could complicate the Trump administration’s attempts to promote a Middle East peace plan.
Such a coalition would also push Israel further to the right, strengthening the country’s affiliation with Donald Trump and the Republican Party and weakening the notion of bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.
It took less than 24 hours after the polling stations closed for the Trump administration to place its mysterious peace plan at the top of the Israeli news agenda. Trump gave a short statement on how Netanyahu’s victory would increase the chances for peace; his national security adviser, John Bolton, predicted that the plan would come out “in the very near future.” In reply, the leaders of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party announced they would oppose Trump’s plan and not be part of a government that supported it.
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This threat should be taken with a grain of salt because no one yet knows the plan’s exact contents. There’s a real chance the blueprint will be so tilted toward the positions of the Israeli right wing, and so biased against the Palestinians, that even Netanyahu’s most right-wing coalition partners will agree to some minimal concessions under the assumption that the Palestinian Authority will reject it anyway.
But if the administration turns out to be sincere in promising a fair plan benefiting both Israelis and Palestinians, a pure right-wing coalition in Israel could become an obstacle for Netanyahu and Trump’s “peace team.”
There is still no clear date for the plan’s release, and no concrete details about it have leaked to the press. During a congressional hearing this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say if the plan would include the creation of a Palestinian state.
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He also ducked a question about Netanyahu’s unprecedented election-eve promise to annex parts of the West Bank. Last year, however, when Netanyahu told a meeting of Likud legislators that he was discussing annexation plans with the administration, a White House spokesman denied it.
On Wednesday, Trump celebrated Netanyahu’s victory, reflecting the growing alliance between the two leaders. During the election campaign, leading U.S. news outlets published long articles comparing Trump and Netanyahu’s political methods, legal ordeals and attacks on their countries’ law enforcement and basic institutions.
Netanyahu’s success in getting reelected despite (or, some would argue, because of) the corruption indictments hovering over him could be seen as a road map for Trump’s reelection battle in 2020. Comparisons between the two leaders were also prevalent Wednesday and Thursday in the post-election coverage in the United States.
The flip side of the Trump-Netanyahu bromance is the danger of growing alienation between Israel and the Democratic Party. Israeli officials are concerned about the prospect of Israel turning into a partisan issue in U.S. politics and losing the bipartisan support it has enjoyed for decades. In the days leading up to the election, three Democratic presidential contenders criticized Netanyahu for his annexation promise, and one, Beto O’Rourke, called him a racist.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, tweeted on Tuesday that “Netanyahu should know that his fearmongering and alliance with the ultra-right, racist Otzma Yehudit party has not gone unnoticed. True friends of Israel will stand against efforts to unilaterally annex the West Bank.” If Netanyahu follows through on his promise, many prominent Democrats will speak out against the move, which could create a one-state reality for Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank.
The annexation threat has the potential to become a major headache for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington because it will almost certainly damage Israel’s standing among Democrats.
One of AIPAC’s main talking points over the past two decades has been that while Israeli governments have expressed support for a two-state solution, the Palestinian leaders haven’t been willing to make the necessary compromises for peace. Unilateral Israeli annexation in the West Bank — with or without backing from the Trump administration — would call that argument into question and empower Israel’s critics on the American left.
A right-wing, religious government led by Netanyahu will also further complicate Israel’s relationship with the U.S. Jewish community, a relationship that already sank to new lows under the previous government. The ultra-Orthodox parties are expected to be the kingmakers in Netanyahu’s coalition — without them, he won’t have a majority. They’ll have great influence over religious policies.
This means that the next government will continue to discriminate against the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, setting the stage for more tensions between the Jewish state and the largest Jewish community outside of it.
A hint of things to come could be seen Wednesday in the statement by the Union for Reform Judaism. While the organization, which represents the largest religious stream in the North American Jewish community, congratulated Netanyahu for his victory, it also highlighted the disagreements between his likely coalition and the majority of American Jews, whether on annexation or religious issues.
These tensions could be avoided if Netanyahu surprised Israeli political analysts and tried to form a broad unity government with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan instead of the narrow right-wing coalition he currently envisions.
The chances for such a move are slim, however; Netanyahu wants his next coalition to pass a law that would protect him from criminal indictment — something Kahol Lavan will never support. That’s why Netanyahu, even if he’s well aware of how a religious, right-wing coalition will impact the U.S.-Israel relationship, is much more likely to choose that option.