Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proved once again why he is perhaps the best politician in Israeli history.
Deeply unpopular, trailing in public opinion polls, and facing an electorate frustrated by the rising cost of living and his seeming indifference to their plight, Netanyahu shamelessly used racist and nationalist appeals to mobilize his right-wing base and rally for a stunning six-seat victory in Tuesday’s national election.
It was an unlikely and unexpected rise from what appeared to be the political ashes, but his win came with a major cost. Netanyahu has left in his wake a trail of political wreckage that will haunt Israel for years to come — and, in the near-term, must force the United States to reconsider its relationship with the Jewish state.
The first and most obvious casualty from Netanyahu’s scorched earth campaign is the remnants of Arab-Israeli peace process — and perhaps the two-state solution altogether.
His election eve comments disavowing his earlier tepid support for a Palestinian state were the final straw. Netanyahu has never shown any serious interest in substantive negotiations or painful compromise in the pursuit of peace. But now the fiction that he could be pressured to do so or would recognize the necessity of the two-state solution has been laid bare. Netanyahu is starting to disavow his disavowal on Palestinian statehood, but few believe him.
As long as Netanyahu remains in power, there is virtually no chance the Palestinians will sit down with him for serious negotiations. It would be equally pointless for the United States to try to restart a peace process for which there is zero interest on either side.
This leads to the second casualty: the US-Israel relationship. For more than two decades, the United States has taken the position that the Arab-Israeli conflict should be resolved through direct negotiation — not unilateral measures. But if there are no talks, if there is no peace process, if the Israeli prime minister rejects the foundational right of the Palestinians to self-determination, then the United States has no leg to stand on in opposing efforts to pressure Israel.
Netanyahu has adopted a stance that flies in the face of more than a decade of US policy, namely to support the creation of two states (one Israeli and one Palestinian) living side-by-side. This of course is not the first time that the Israeli government has taken actions that run counter to US policy. It’s been happening for decades — every time Israel builds or expands a new settlement in the West Bank.
This time, however, is different, and the United States has little choice but to respond accordingly.
In the absence of a peace process or an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution, the United States can no longer justify its opposition to efforts at the United Nations to recognize Palestinian statehood. There can be no justification for the United States to continue to shield Israel from international opprobrium for its provocative and illegal settlement building in the occupied territories. Finally, at this point, the United States might as well present its own framework for a final status agreement, either unilaterally or via a Security Council resolution.
This doesn’t mean the United States should abandon Israel or the security relationship that exists between the two countries. The links between the United States and Israel are enduring and real; and for millions of Americans, Israel’s security is a matter of vital concern. Supporting Israel, however, cannot mean subsuming US national security interests to those of Jerusalem. If Israel is acting in ways that go against those interests, and it is, Washington must make its views known.
More important, Tuesday night’s electoral results were an endorsement of a status quo in Israel and Palestine that will, in time, spell the end of the Israeli experiment in democracy, and perhaps the Zionist dream altogether. The United States would be the worst kind of friend if it did and said nothing as Israel drives full speed ahead into a dark future where the term “apartheid state” may no longer be an epithet hurled by Israel’s opponents, but rather Israel’s new normal.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.