They tried so hard. For years, the Obama administration has been yearning for an Israeli prime minister who isn’t Benjamin Netanyahu. The president clashed with Jerusalem almost as soon as he took office, and by early 2010 the White House was already ham-handedly picking fights that, they privately told journalists, they hoped would split Netanyahu’s coalition.
This cycle, Obama allies openly campaigned against Netanyahu, with Jeremy Bird, the national field director for the 2012 Obama campaign, spearheading a project in Israel called V15—short for Victory 2015—to get out the anti-Bibi vote. (The funding behind Bird’s project has raised legal questions that are still under investigation both in Israel and in the United States.) When Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu during his visit to Washington earlier this month, the administration suggested it was about staying neutral during Israel’s election season when any sentient observer could see that it was exactly the opposite.
It didn’t work. If anything, it backfired. While it’s common for American political consultants to work on all sides of Israeli elections, the prominence of Team Obama’s fingerprints on the opposition’s campaign became a rallying point for the right. The final polls in the week before the election (polling is banned in the last few days of the campaign) suggested that the center-left Zionist Union would surge to become the largest party in the Knesset; the usually accurate exit polls suggested that Netanyahu’s Likud party was tied or slightly ahead. But when the actual vote tally came in, Likud was the big winner, ahead by a substantial five or six seats.
There won’t be a center-left government, nor will there be the left-right unity government that some envisioned. Moshe Kahlon, the ex-Likudnik whose centrist Kulanu took around 10 seats, could have possibly forced a unity government if the results had been closer, but the strong showing for Likud gives Kahlon much less leverage. It’s a center-right coalition, with Bibi firmly in the driver’s seat.
In truth, even a victory for the Zionist Union—a merger of Labor, led by Isaac “Buji” Herzog, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party—would have likely yielded a government less deferential to Obama than the administration might have hoped. The opposition critique of Netanyahu’s government focused almost entirely on domestic issues, particularly the rising cost of food and housing that Kahlon built his campaign on. Even when criticizing the prime minister for his address to Congress warning of the perils of a bad deal with Iran, Netanyahu’s rivals made clear that they agreed entirely with the substance of the speech. Nachman Shai of the Zionist Union said at an English-language debate in Jerusalem the weekend before the -election that while his party objected to the time and place that Bibi chose to give his speech, “we fully support the government’s policy towards Iran.”
Netanyahu’s triumph was driven largely by people who had considered voting for one of the smaller right-wing parties but settled on Likud at the end. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party had campaigned largely on full-throated opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu shored up his right flank in part by saying that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.
This was little more than a statement of fact. After the collapse of the latest round of peace negotiations, Palestinian statehood in the immediate future wasn’t in the cards under Bibi or Buji or anyone else. The failure of the peace process, and the increasing instability in the region, made the two-states-for-two-peoples principle that Netanyahu laid out in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University functionally irrelevant, and he said as much. There’s already a de facto Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, and it’s ruled by Hamas; the prospect of a de jure state on the West Bank is not something any Israeli government is likely to acquiesce to without security guarantees that preclude the creation of another Gaza-like base for terrorist attacks—security guarantees that the Palestinian Authority has been unwilling or unable to provide.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration is already making noises about treating this as a significant policy shift that demands a response from Washington, perhaps even reevaluating the diplomatic support that America traditionally gives the Jewish state at the United Nations and in other international forums. It has the feel of sour grapes, with Obama and his team throwing a tantrum. All because, after trying so very hard, they failed to bend the Israeli electorate to their will.
John Tabin is a writer in Washington.