Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s reelection last week has surprised many Israelis as well as the rest of the world. Almost every poll taken prior to the election showed Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party losing by around two to five seats to the center-left Zionist Union Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
Many attribute this victory to Netanyahu’s radical conservative shift in the last week of the campaign, in which he claimed that no Palestinian state would exist as long as he is prime minister. While Netanyahu reneged on those comments after the election, the remarks have still alienated many in the international community and have definitely pushed the Palestinians further away from the negotiating table.
Despite this alienation, Netanyahu’s comments were political genius.
Understandably, national security is the most important issue in Israeli politics. In its brief 66-year existence, Israel has fought over six major wars with other Arab states, not to mention the dozen or so armed conflicts with Palestinians. Beyond the official conflicts, Israel has been victim to thousands of stabbings, suicide bombings and rocket attacks at the hands of the Palestinians.
But for a majority of the election, these security concerns took a backseat to the social and economic issues plaguing Israel since Netanyahu took office in 2009. These issues became the rallying call of Israel’s leftist parties while they remained quiet on national security issues. This allowed them to poke Likud in its spot of weakness. Since Likud took control of the government in 2009, Israeli housing prices soared by 55 percent. Furthermore, massive protests over rising food prices broke out in 2011, in which over 100,000 Israelis took to the streets.
The Zionist Union, a coalition of the two largest liberal parties in Israel, campaigned on decreasing housing and food costs in Israel, pressuring for 300,000 new low cost homes and subsidies for housing ownership. In doing so, they offered an alternative to Netanyahu’s socio-economic failures. This explains their 5-seat lead in pre-election polls.
Netanyahu tried to make this election a referendum on security issues. He spoke, almost daily, on the dangers of a nuclear Iran, even alienating the White House through his address to Congress in early March. But after seeing that this strategy was not working, Netanyahu turned his attention towards a more direct security threat: the Palestinians.
The recent string of Palestinian stabbings and other attacks against Israelis have heightened security fears in Israel. By rejecting the possibility of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu appealed to those fears and repositioned national security at the center of the election. By doing so, he reminded Israelis of his strong commitment to a formidable national defense, which was somewhat of a weakness for the Zionist Union.
While Netanyahu chose not to focus on price increases during his campaign, the Prime Minster’s reelection gives him the opportunity to begin tackling those important socio-economic issues. The pre-election polls are proof enough that rising costs in Israel are an important issue for Israelis. While national security is, and will remain, the most important issue for Israelis, the current political climate in the Middle East gives Israel a little bit of room to turn more of its attention towards domestic economic issues. Many in the region and across the world are more focused on combating the Islamic State than the creation of a Palestinian state. This is evidenced by the secret intelligence and military cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a harsh critic of Israeli actions against Palestinians, which has emerged over mutual fears of Iran and ISIS.
Fortunately for the Israeli people, Netanyahu does not have much of a choice. He can choose to focus on these issues or be forced to do so through his future majority coalition. In order to reach the required 60-member majority in the Knesset, Netanyahu’s new government will undoubtedly include left leaning parties, whether it be the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, Kulanu, or a mix of all three. Regardless, each of those parties support combating socio-economic issues in Israel.
The Prime Minister must promise to work on these issues if he is going to form a majority coalition. If he makes those promises but refuses to keep them, the coalition will break down and Israel’s president will call for a new election. And next time, Netanyahu may not be so lucky.