Lurch to the right secures Bibi victory

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has surprised everyone, notes the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen. He not only won Tuesday’s general election, but he also scored “a much bigger victory than the exit polls had suggested”. At one point in the campaign it seemed as if his main opponent, centre-left leader Yitzhak Herzog, had broken through “by not letting up on social and economic issues”.

However, Netanyahu “narrowed the gap with Mr Herzog’s Zionist Union, and then overhauled it”. He did this by “turning sharply towards the ultra-nationalist Israeli right” through issuing “a series of grim warnings about the consequences for Israel if he lost”.

This “lurch to the right” may have helped Netanyahu win re-election, says Peter Beaumont in The Guardian, but he can’t afford to sit on his laurels. Israel is “implacably divided”. The “still-strong showing” of the opposition suggests there is “a large constituency in Israel opposed to all that Netanyahu and the right stand for”.

That will put pressure on him to broaden his coalition. Meanwhile, “Israel’s increasing isolation on the international stage – including in its relations with the US” – means the country faces a tense period ahead.

The biggest loser of the night was the US president, Barack Obama, who has “to resign himself to the likelihood that he has not seen the last of Benjamin Netanyahu”, say Matt Spetalnick and Patricia Zengerle of Reuters. It won’t make Israel’s relationship with the US any easier – the two men are increasingly at odds over Iranian diplomacy and peacemaking in the Middle East.

Just two weeks ago, Netanyahu made a “divisive speech to Congress attacking US-led nuclear talks with Iran”. The final days of campaigning have deepened “tensions between the right-wing leader and Washington”.

Part of the problem is that in the past “Israel dealt with states that were in control of their own territory (Lebanon apart) and which were rational actors”, says Michael Burleigh in The Times. So “terrorism could be handled with the occasional iron fist”. That’s not true any longer, with Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen turning into “defunct states and Lebanon and Jordan… in danger of becoming so”.

The concern is that any deal with the US on Iran’s development of nuclear power is likely to “precipitate a nuclear arms race in the region, to compound problems over access to oil and water, as well as rising unemployment”.

Yet “even if the centre-left had won the election”, a peace deal with the Palestinians “would have been a pretty remote prospect”, says Gideon Rachman in the FT. Attempts to broker agreement “have failed repeatedly over the past 25 years, even when the Israeli left has been in power”.

The reality is that “any Israeli government… would hesitate to take risks with security – with Syria imploding on one border, Lebanon increasingly shaky and jihadists of Isis on the rampage”.

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