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What Netanyahu’s re-election means for Israel

March 18, 2015 at 6:40 PM EST
What does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued leadership mean for Israel? Gwen Ifill talks to Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich for analysis on how the election results affect the Middle East peace process, Iran negotiations and U.S. relations.

GWEN IFILL: For more on what Netanyahu remaining in power means for Israel, prospects for a Palestinian state, and the American-Israeli relationship, I’m joined by former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland and author of the book “The World Through Arab Eyes,” and Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for East — for Near East Policy.

Ambassador Rabinovich, I want to start by getting your sense, your reaction to what happened yesterday and why.

ITAMAR RABINOVICH, Former Ambassador, Israel: What happened was that, despite talk about socioeconomic issues, the unhappiness of the young middle class and other issues, the dominant issue remains security.

Israelis are worried. They look at Iran, they look at Gaza, they look at Hezbollah in Lebanon, they look at the collapsing states around us, and Mr. Netanyahu did a much better job than Mr. Herzog in portraying himself as the leader who can look after the security of the state and of the individual citizens in the state.

He did also outflank the right-wing party. If you look at the outbreak — or the breakout of the vote, there wasn’t so much a shift from the left to the right, but a shift inside the right-wing camp. And Netanyahu was successful in dwarfing Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lieberman, and aggrandizing his own Likud party.

And, of course, he’s a consummate campaigner and did a very good job of coming up from a low position to the victory of last night.

GWEN IFILL: Rob Satloff, did he just campaign his way? Did he just out campaign his opposition? And what does that mean if he did?

ROBERT SATLOFF, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, Prime Minister Netanyahu is an extraordinary politician,

This is not the first time that Israelis went to bed thinking someone else won and waking up and Bibi was the winner. He knows how to pull the strings, especially among the center-right and the right. This time, his main target were not undecideds. His main target were people further to the right than he is, to pull them into his Likud Party.

And he did it in the last couple of days. Actually, both main camps panicked. He panicked with his last-minute declaration about no Palestinian state. And the center-left panicked by essentially dropping the running mate of their number one candidate, that she wouldn’t be the candidate for prime minister.

His gambit worked better. And he got more votes for his old party to make him not just able to put together a coalition, but dwarfing all other parties.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Shibley Telhami about that, because what he — what Bob Satloff describes as panic, I wonder if that was designed. He not only talked about there would be no two-state solution if he were reelected, but he also tweeted that there were a lot of Arabs going to the polls, and he tried to stir his base up.

Was that by design?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University of Maryland: I — well, whether it was by design or not, it clearly — whether he really panicked or not, he used it for sure.

No question that he used the numbers to his advantage. When there was a report just on Thursday, on Friday, that he is behind on the polls, that he could actually — you know, that even the Israeli public started saying, it’s not inevitable that Bibi is going to be prime minister, he used that.

Whether he believed it or not, he used that very effectively. I must say, I don’t think it was about issues, not even security issues. I think, clearly, his focus on security was deliberate to take away from attention on social issues. I think this was about identity politics.

He went for communal identity, for issues that are important to core identities of his constituents. He played on them. He wanted to raise the level of participation in the elections. Eighty percent of the settlers participated in their elections. So he clearly used the Arab issue, you know, what The New York Times called racist rants to scare people of the empowered Arab-Israeli citizens who were voting.

And, clearly, on the Palestinian issue, he went again with an identity question on Jerusalem. So I think it was really mobilizing the right. He did that. He did successfully, but at very high cost, because it’s going to cost him in governing and in foreign policy.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Rabinovich, is that true? Is that who the Israeli voters are? We spend a lot of time getting inside Netanyahu’s head, but how about inside the heads of the voters and what they actually require?

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: Israel is a deeply divided society, divided between right and left, secular and orthodox, Jew and Arab, Russian immigrants, and so forth and so forth.

And one of the most important things that an Israeli politician or party needs to do in order to win an election is to find the broadest common denominator in order to attract voters. So, that is one issue.

Identity issues is an important — is an important component. And the persona of the candidate. The left or the center-left was able to win earlier election campaigns when it put a strong personality with strong security credentials, be it Yitzhak Rabin or be it Ehud Barak or the — Ariel Sharon after his conversion.

Let us remember that, as recently as 2009, Ehud Olmert won an election with a platform of continuing Sharon’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the West Bank. That wasn’t so far ago. So, the personality of the candidate is very important.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, thank you. I didn’t mean to interrupt.

But I did want to ask all three of you this question, which is, what does this mean now for the future, if there is a future, of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and of the U.S. relationship with a leader who now we have some strain with, at least our two leaders have some strain?

What do you think, Rob Satloff?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, I — this is a very basic question about what sort of prime minister Netanyahu would like to be.

He could be a prime minister of a narrow coalition. He could be a prime minister of a slightly wider coalition. He could even be broader. He can define his future.

In terms of the Palestinians, I think we should parse his words carefully. What he said was and what his advisers are now saying is, there is certainly no Palestinian state now. Can circumstances change? Can there be a renewal of diplomacy? Can there be security cooperation that really gets engaged? It’s certainly possible.

GWEN IFILL: Did you see that rhetorical loophole?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, I think, look, he wouldn’t be the first politician to change his mind after promising during an election if he were to change course.

But there is nothing in his history that would indicate he is capable of doing that. He had a chance last time. He didn’t have to go with the right-wing coalition. He had a center-left partner he could have gone with. He could have gone with a wider coalition. There is no trust at all in this administration or among Palestinians after his statements that he made now, no matter what kind of coalition he goes with.

He’s not going to change his mind quickly. And nobody is going to trust to test him to see whether he possibly could change his mind. I don’t see any possible realistic opening for renewing negotiation on the basis of two-state solution any time soon.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador, do you see any realistic opening?

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: Possibly, yes.

What I — what I would do if I were Netanyahu’s friend or adviser, I would have said to him, don’t look at your past; look at your future. You are 65 years old. It’s your fourth term, maybe your last term. You have survived in politics. Now is — now is your time, and you have the power to make the difference. Take bold decisions. You went to Washington to give what you called the Churchillian speech. Be Churchillian in the bold decisions that you will be making in the next few weeks and months.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I guess that is what we will be watching for.

Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, Rob Satloff, Shibley Telhami, thank you all very much.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Pleasure.

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: Thank you.

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