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What a weakened Benjamin Netanyahu means for America
Israel went to the polls Tuesday, surprising everybody by delivering a 50-50 split between the Right and center-Left
 
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu waves to his supporters at his election campaign headquarters on Jan. 23.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu waves to his supporters at his election campaign headquarters on Jan. 23. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party were expected to clean up in Tuesday's elections. They didn't. According to unofficial results, Likud and its allied Yisrael Beiteinu party still won the most seats in the Knesset (parliament) — 31 of the 120 seats, down from 42 — but Netanyahu's rightist coalition and the center-left bloc are each projected to get 60 seats, the very definition of a tie. The left-for-dead Labor Party came in third place, winning 15, and the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party — formed only last year by TV newscaster Yair Lapid — is the surprise kingmaker, coming in second with 19 seats. The ultra-Orthodox religious party Shas and the buzzy, secular-nationalist Jewish Home party each got 11 seats. 

Despite the apparent rebuke, Netanyahu declared victory and predicted he would stay on for a third term as head of government, "forming the broadest coalition possible." There's an excellent chance the enfeebled prime minister's coalition will be "too fragile to last a full four-year term," however, says Ruth Pollard at Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, and the hawkish leader will find himself "constrained" on the key foreign policy issues of Iran's nuclear program and crafting a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

Those are the two areas that affect U.S. relations the most, of course, and you might think, given the famously testy relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu, that a weakened Israeli leader is good news for the newly invigorated Obama, says Howard LaFranchi at The Christian Science Monitor. That may be true on the nuclear issue, where the Israeli public's "wariness about war with Iran could actually serve Obama's purposes," but the elections did little to dispel Israel's rightward shift on peace with the Palestinians, so Netanyahu will probably keep up his expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Either way, "few Middle East experts expect a rosy hue to suddenly color U.S.-Israel relations after Tuesday's national elections."

Really, "no one won" this election — "the results are a muddle," says Robert Shrum at The Daily Beast. "Voters pulled back from the right, but they didn't rush to the left," and now Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, and the other leaders of Israel's political parties have some tough decisions to make hammering out a governing coalition. But the rise of the Israeli center probably means "the Obama administration will have a more realistic chance of advancing the peace process — and of staying an attack on Iran and unless and until it becomes absolutely necessary." That's good news for "the democratic Jewish state so many of us prize," and for the U.S. Whoever ends up in power, "at least Obama didn't lose."

Nonsense, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. "Left-wing American critics of the Jewish state" can no longer claim that "Israel is a far-right bastion," but "whatever the vote was, it was not for a peacenik foreign policy." And assuming "Obama's obnoxious comment that Israel doesn't know what is good for it" was meant to hurt Netanyahu, the Israeli people ignored him and "elected a right-center government that will be tough on Iran and tough on the Palestinians." But the truth is, foreign policy barely rated in this election — it was all about the domestic politics of income equality, weakening the special rights and stipends of some Orthodox Jewish men, and "social justice." So despite the temptation to make the election all about us, "we should be careful not to look at this through the prism of U.S. pundits."

 

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