Israel’s policy determined by situation, not ideology

On Tuesday, Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new Knesset and therefore a new Prime Minister and government. Most likely the Likud party of Binyamin Netanyahu will ‘win’, although since it is impossible for any party to get a majority of Knesset seats, it will be forced to form a coalition government of some kind.

I expect that there will be an immediate outcry from the usual suspects that now the ‘hardliners’ have taken over, and chances for ‘peace’ are diminished. This is wrong. Policy is far more determined by the situation Israel finds itself in than by ideology. And peace is far away, unfortunately, for reasons having nothing to do with Israeli policy.

The following article is presented in order to immunize you against the nonsense about to be written by those like Thomas L. Friedman, whose understanding of the Middle East is inferior to that of the average Tel Aviv cabdriver. 

Israel’s election in international perspective

By Barry Rubin

Many people don’t understand what’s happening now in Israeli politics, so here’s a brief, and non-partisan, appreciation. Compared to the past, there’s far less difference between the three main parties. This is largely due to the objective situation, which is rather inflexible.

It is easy to characterize some as rabid right-wingers who throw away chances for peace and others as rabid left-wingers who are ready to make too many concessions. Neither argument is correct except for the fringes, which are not going to shape Israeli policy. I am tempted to add that abroad, the left thinks we’re evil, while the right thinks we’re stupid. All of this has little to do with reality.

The dominant theme in international media coverage is to say Israelis are moving toward the right. Yet this is both misleading and misinterpreted. On the first aspect, the real Israeli move has been toward the center, which is represented not only by Kadima and Likud but also by Labor. The great majority of Israelis are about to vote for parties close to centrist positions than at any time in history.

The left-wing mantra is peace, though how we can reach peace with Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah is rather hard to see. With the PA the situation is a more complex but, briefly, it doesn’t control Gaza, is still full of radical elements, and has weak leadership. The PA is nowhere near being able to make peace on a realistic basis. Everyone in the PA and in Israel’s leadership knows this; few in the Western media and academia seem close to comprehending it. A lot of governments understand the situation privately but talk quite differently in public.

The right-wing mantra is victory, though how Israel is going to replace the Iranian and Syrian governments, or destroy Hamas and Hizballah is equally hard to see. Israel has minimal to no international support for these goals and lacks great alternatives to what exists at present.

What have Israelis learned over the last decade that shapes their thinking?

  • We discovered that Palestinians and Syrians are unwilling and unable to make peace.
  • We saw that Fatah is still full of extremism and its leadership is too weak and too hardline itself to make a comprehensive peace agreement.
  • We viewed the rise of Hamas as a group dedicated to permanent war with Israel and its seizure of one-half of the Palestinian-ruled territories, using land from which Israel withdrew as a base for attacks.
  • We experienced the continuing hatred of the Arab world and Muslim world toward Israel, largely undiminished by Israeli concessions.
  • We observed Iran’s rise as a power, potentially nuclear armed, whose regime explicitly seeks Israel’s extinction.
  • We noted the world didn’t reward Israel for making concessions and taking risks. Indeed, the more Israel gave, the higher the degree of slander and hostility rose in many sectors.

As a result of this, there has arisen in Israel a national consensus around the following points:

  • Israel wants peace and will make real concessions for true lasting, stable peace and a two-state solution
  • Few think the Palestinian leadership — PA, Fatah — is willing or able to make such an agreement for decades. The same applies to Syria. As a result, any real changes on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights or West Bank settlements are far off.
  • No deal can be made with Hamas. But Hamas isn’t going to disappear either. The same applies to Hizballah. The key point is to defend Israel and its citizens so they pursue their normal lives.
  • Iran is a real danger and when it appears about to get nuclear weapons, a big decision will have to be made on attacking these facilities.

As a result of this national consensus — accepted by Labor, Likud, and Kadima, along with many others — the next government can be a national unity government. Whoever becomes prime minister would do well to bring in one or both of the other two main parties.    What is Israel’s consensus policy for the next government?

  • To stress that we want peace, are ready for a Palestinian state, aren’t responsible for the conflict and violence continuing.
  • To maintain deterrence and defend ourselves.
  • To preserve the best possible relations with the United States, Europe, and other countries as long as it does not involve risks to Israeli national interests and citizens.
  • Security cooperation with the PA to prevent terrorist attacks on Israel in exchange for helping them economically and against Hamas to ensure that it doesn’t take over the West Bank. Without illusions regarding Fatah and the PA, this effort seems to be working.
  • To decide when to strike back at Hamas — and potentially Hizballah — based on any attacks on us. Precise response depends on timing, opportunity, and their behavior.
  • To work for the isolation of Iran, Hizballah and Hamas.

Where are the main differences among the leading parties?  They are more atmospherics than real: offering small concessions; making small demands. If much of the election revolves around personalities that is because strategy and policy are not hugely different among them. Bibi isn’t going to embark on a settlement-building campaign; Tzipi isn’t going to give away east Jerusalem.

And that’s a good thing for whatever faults they have, this trio is basically making appropriate responses to the situation.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit

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6 Responses to “Israel’s policy determined by situation, not ideology”

  1. ME says:

    Are you speculating or hoping Netayahu will win?

    Liebermann and Livni have a better chance of taking a combined lead over Netanyahu in a public vote, substantial enough at either end to defeat Netanyahu.

    Can you explain the election process a little?

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    It is difficult to argue with Barry
    Rubin whose knowledge of the area and situation so far exceeds mine. But I do not like the way he addressed the Iranian Nuclear Program. He seems to feel that once Iran goes nuclear , Israel will still have an option of attacking its facilities in an effective way. I do not know that that is the case. I do not know that such an attack might not bring an Iranian nuclear response.
    Having studied this problem for some time it seems to me now that Iran is not going to be stopped by the U.S, which clearly has the greatest ability to do so.
    Perhaps the next stage will be our talking about whether or not Israel can deter a nuclear Iran.
    My suspicion however is that we will be talking about is the U.S. demanding nuclear disarmament from Israel as part of a package to ‘negotiate’ with Iran on its own not going nuclear.
    This would be a very dangerous development for Israel.

  3. Vic Rosenthal says:

    To ME:

    Netanyahu is ahead in the polls.

    Israelis vote for a party. Each party has a list of candidates for the Knesset, and the number of seats (out of 120) that a party gets is proportionate to the number of votes. Netanyahu is polling in the high 20’s, with Kadima, Labor, Israel Beitenau, and Shas following (if I recall correctly).

    The candidate at the top of the winning list gets the first chance to form a government (he would need 60 seats — an impossibility — to form a government entirely from his own party). He then has to make a coalition, and his prospective coalition partners make demands. Sometimes they want particular ministers to be appointed from their party, sometimes they want commitments to particular policies, sometimes it just translates into money.

    Sometimes a small party with only a handful of seats holds the balance of power and can make outsize demands.

    This is a system that is dysfunctional today, if it ever was a good idea. It results in governments that are paralyzed; they can’t act because one partner or another can threaten to leave (which would cause the government to fall) at any time.

  4. ME says:



    I did not realize that the voting and election process was viewed as a source of dhysfunctionality.

  5. ME says:


    What happens now?

    Since the election is close call, but Kadima is leading by one, if Likud forms a coalition first, does that make Netanyahu the winner?

  6. Vic Rosenthal says:

    The President (Shimon Peres) is supposed to pick the candidate that he judges most likely to form a coalition and give him/her the chance. I believe that they always choose the one with the most mandates, but they don’t have to. However, I’m sure Peres will pick Livni!

    If after some number of days (google it!) the first choice is unsuccessful, then the President picks someone else.

    I think that actually Netanyahu has a better chance of forming a coalition than Livni. But anything can happen.