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OPINION: Bibi Win Promises More Friction With Washington

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.

The voters of Israel have spoken, and their answer augurs more friction with the United States and Europe over issues ranging from Iran nuclear negotiations to creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, campaigning fiercely for his political life, led his Likud Party to an impressive victory, roaring past a somewhat reinvigorated center-left.

But the manner in which he won -- forswearing even lip service in support of a two-state solution and denigrating political participation by the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arabs -- suggests his new tenure will be just as controversial, if not more so, than his past three terms in office.

During the campaign, Netanyahu offered no new prescriptions to remedy Israel’s fundamental dilemma as a nation with a shrinking Jewish majority that occupies land in which Palestinian Arabs will soon outnumber Jews.

Instead, he told an interviewer on the eve of elections there would not be an independent Palestinian state on his watch -- reversing his pledge in 2009 to try to establish such a state under a negotiated peace agreement.

Netanyahu appealed to the legitimate fears of Israelis as they watch the Middle East disintegrate around them, though in a way that offered no hope of a more peaceful future for Jews or Palestinians.

He warned that a Palestinian state in the West Bank would become another “Hamastan” similar to the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated unilaterally in 2005, and has bombed repeatedly since then in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The Israeli leader widened the divide between his supporters and Israel’s Arab citizens when he told Israeli voters that Arabs who live in Israel proper, and thus have the right to vote, were turning out “in droves” and could boost the chances of a center-left coalition to take power unless right-wing Israelis voted for his Likud party.

Netanyahu also played up the threat from Iran, although Iran’s nuclear program appears not to have been a major issue for most Israeli voters.

His decision to come to Washington two weeks ago to criticize an emerging nuclear deal before a joint session of Congress infuriated the Obama administration and alienated some of Israel’s traditional U.S. allies from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

After Israeli election results were announced, Richard Haass, a Republican who heads the Council on Foreign Relations and might have a high-level post if the GOP wins 2016 U.S. presidential elections, tweeted "PM won but at cost of worsening ties with Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, & Obama administration. governing challenge will be great."

Deprived of hope for a negotiated solution with Israel, Palestinians say they will double down on unilateral efforts to gain recognition for a Palestinian state. Israeli isolation -- particularly in Europe -- may grow as more European countries recognize this entity.

It remains unclear how vigorously the Obama administration will try to stave off Palestinian actions in U.N. bodies given the animosity between Obama and Netanyahu.

Spokespersons for the White House and State Department said Wednesday the U.S. would re-evaluate its strategy on the peace process in light of Netanyahu’s rejection of a two-state solution. It is possible Netanyahu will do another u-turn to mollify Washington, although the likely composition of his new coalition could make this unlikely.

By confronting the U.S. head-on about the contours of an emerging agreement with Iran, Netanyahu also has marginalized Israeli influence on the White House as it seeks to achieve a historic breakthrough with the Islamic Republic.

Israel still wields power in the U.S. Congress, but the prime minister’s partisan approach -- accepting an invitation to speak from Republican House Speaker John Boehner without informing the administration -- could make it more difficult for Democrats to side with Republicans to oppose an Iran accord.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told a House hearing Thursday that Netanyahu had “insulted our president” by accepting Boehner's invitation, and said “friends don’t act that way.”

Beyond non-proliferation, there are more profound matters at stake between Israel and its only real ally.

The special relationship between Israel and the United States always has had more to do with shared values than shared strategic interests in the Middle East.

Americans have admired Israeli courage in fending off Arab attacks and ingenuity in making the desert bloom. Israel has become a hub for high-tech innovation and has absorbed waves of immigrants from a kaleidoscope of nations.

Continued American affinity, however, depends on Israel remaining a vibrant democracy and not an occupying power for the indefinite future.

Netanyahu’s inability to achieve peace with the Palestinians and his dark vision of an Israel in perpetual peril -- belied by the country’s military and economic might -- turns off many Americans, including a younger generation of Jews that worries more about Israeli settlement policies than the threat from Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.

In a few decades, a plurality, if not a majority, of Americans will be people of color and of Hispanic background with scant historical or emotional ties to the Jewish state.

To retain long-term American backing, Israel needs leaders who can uphold their country’s security, but also reach out to new constituencies with a vision of a strong and democratic Israel. That was not the Bibi Netanyahu who campaigned for re-election, and it remains to be seen whether he can re-invent himself in his new term in office.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.

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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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