Today's Israeli election does not, it is fair to say, take place in at a moment of supreme hope in the Middle East. Quite the contrary. This is an election whose result seems liable to depress most foreign observers. Bibi Netanyahu is no-one's idea of a moderate but the fact remains that, presuming he is returned for a third term as Prime Minister, he may be one of the more left-wing members of the new Israeli government. Indeed, Netanyahu is liable to be one of the more liberal members returned on the Likud list.
Daniel Levy has a very useful primer on the dispiriting 'facts on the ground'. As Levy says:
The next coalition will likely find it even harder to pretend to the world that a 2009 Netanyahu speech in which the phrase "two states" was uttered is a genuine policy commitment. Two states was never formally adopted as government or Likud policy, it does not appear in the campaign of the Likud-Beiteinu party (in fact, it has been disavowedby Likud candidates and is considered to be a key reason there is no party platform), and it is safe to predict that it will also not be adopted by Netanyahu's next government.
The defining fault line of the new coalition will be less about two states or not, and more focused on the struggle between proactive annexationists and status quo merchants, meaning yet more deepening and entrenching of occupation. In the old Israeli political map, those considered "solutionists" were the two-staters. In the emerging Israeli political map, the "new solutionists" advocating action now are Greater Israel annexationists (a significant cohort of the Likud-Beiteinu and Jewish Home lists). One can still expect the status-quo camp to carry the day, and international reaction to yet more violations of international law to still be plodding and rhetorical rather than meaningful, but two connected factors should not be underestimated -- what Israeli overreach toward the Palestinians (settlement radicalism, collapsing the Palestinian Authority) could unleash, and the possibility of a more challenging Palestinian counterstrategy eventually emerging, especially in the new regional environment.
Indeed. The future of Israel as a state that is both Jewish and democratic as we have known it is now at greater risk than at any time since its foundation. That is, Israel as Israel is threatened by internal forces as well as by its external and familiar foes.
None of this is cheering. The rise of the religious right in all its various forms and the threat this poses to secular Zionism is well documented by David Remnick in this recent New Yorker article. Even Netanyahu, no-one's idea of a squish, finds himself pinned in a corner with few attractive options.
Yet this is the inexorable logic of both the failure of the two-state solution and Israel's parallel embrace of measures that contribute to making a two-state solution an improbable destination. Greater Israel and the annexation of large parts of (or even the whole) West Bank play a large part in thwarting that. So, of course, does Palestinian obstructionism and the as yet unresolved struggle between rival Palestinian factions. There is, in this analysis, no-one for Israel to talk to and, still more dispiritingly, little to talk about even if useful talks seemed a realistic prospect.
The status quo is impossible yet also preferable to what seems most likely to happen. That leaves Israel in an increasingly unattractive position. Trapped between domestic extremists and foreign hostility, it will be harder still for Israel to maintain even its present levels of international support and sympathy. That too is a depressing thought at a time when Israel has fewer friends that she might like or even, eventually, need.
It seems probable that Netanyahu will be returned to power as much by default (or inertia) as anything else. The opposition - divided and weak - has failed to offer an alternative. But if prospects for peace required great dollops of wishful thinking last week that's as nothing compared to the grim - yet, in its way, rational - sense of hopelessness that seems the most probable outcome of this election.