Washington • The last decade has been trying for liberals who support the existence of a democratic Jewish state and believe that Palestinians have a right to self-determination within a state of their own. Tuesday’s election in Israel made the liberal path even rockier, both inside the country and in the United States.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's victory was not overwhelming, but it was decisive. The country is split in two, but not in equal halves.
Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party and the upstart Blue and White Party received virtually the same vote. This was a genuine achievement for Benny Gantz, the former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff who is the new party's leader.
But Gantz's showing came largely at the expense of Israel's left and liberal parties. The Labor Party, which once dominated Israel's politics, was reduced, on the latest count, to just six parliamentary seats out of 120. On Labor's left, the Meretz Party secured only four. To put this in perspective, the two parties together held 56 seats in 1992.
As a result, Netanyahu's likely governing coalition that includes other right-wingers and religious parties seems on track to win roughly 65 seats, hardly an overwhelming majority but enough to keep him in power.
The failure of the left is a commentary on the mood of Israelis who have largely given up hope for accommodation with Palestinians. The country's electorate is often seen as divided among hawks, doves and "security hawks," essentially Israel's swing voters. Unlike the conventional hawks, the security hawks are open to reaching agreement with Palestinians if they see doing so as consistent with Israel's safety. They move right when they see such an accord as impossible.
This has created a kind of vicious cycle: If Palestinian leaders cannot deliver a deal palatable to Israelis, Israeli voters lose hope in its possibility and look for someone who can manage endless conflict. Netanyahu is on the verge of becoming Israel's longest-serving prime minister by being viewed as that man.
But the lurch to the right in Israel further hardens views on the Palestinian side. Virtually everything Netanyahu does makes conciliation even less likely. His end-of-campaign pledge to annex Jewish settlements on the West Bank would, if carried out, be "the final death knell for a two-state process," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in the United States. "That has to distress anybody who wants a democratic Jewish state and a two-state solution."
For pro-Israel liberals, the election will aggravate a growing estrangement. "We're walking a very delicate tightrope," Jacobs said in an interview. "We are deeply committed to the state of Israel, to its founding promise, and we see policies that are quite antithetical to us and to that promise." Within the Democratic Party, an already fractious debate will become even more heated.
Gantz, joined by two other former generals in a campaign that made no promises of a peace deal anytime soon, had reason to hope that more of the security hawks would vote his way. But he failed to make the inroads into the center-right he needed.
The opposition vote was further diminished by lower turnout among Arab Israelis. They were frustrated by divisions among their own leaders and the reluctance of Gantz's party to appeal directly for their votes. They were also subject to a voter suppression campaign as Netanyahu's party sent supporters with some 1,200 cameras and recording devices into Arab polling places.
Allison Kaplan Sommer, a writer for the liberal Haaretz, also pointed to Netanyahu's image-burnishing success in creating warm ties with President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other "more authoritarian, more transactional and more relationship-oriented leaders."
When it comes to Trump, the Israeli leader can point to how much his constituency resembles his American ally's: Netanyahu lost the sophisticated, upscale voters around Tel Aviv to Gantz by more than 2-to-1, but overwhelmed Gantz in more religious Jerusalem, and also in towns that Sommer described as Israel's equivalent of Middle America.
The fact that Netanyahu could prevail and win his fifth election even in the face of a pending indictment on corruption charges is a tribute to his ruthless and brazen political cunning. But the pending indictment could yet be his undoing. Seeking legal protection from the new Parliament could split his coalition partners and even his own party.
For now, Netanyahu is triumphant, the latest politician to gain or hold power by dividing his country and stoking right-wing nationalism. It's not the brand of politics Israel's liberal supporters ever expected.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.