The problem Israel faces in the aftermath of February's national elections is neither right wing nor left wing. It's getting trapped in a political limbo.
Newly designated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's effort to form a functional government may be the beginning of the end of Israeli politics, and with it, a peace process that has never been more essential for both Israel and the Palestinians. Israel's electoral system is famous for its instability. Governments rise, governments fall; it's the cyclical nature of parliamentary politics, especially in an ethnic democracy as rancorous as Israel.
Last month's elections, however, reveal systemic failure brought on by decades of avoiding matters as critical as the national identity of the state, long-term policy toward occupation and settlements, and overall adherence to the status quo.
The absence of bold, pragmatic political leadership since 1948, including the necessary confrontation of religious and political extremists after 1967, now threatens the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state that is also moral and democratic.
To form the kind of center-right government Mr. Netanyahu says he would like to administer, he needs the Kadima party as a moderating force. For that to happen, he would have to accept the party's (slightly) more dovish platform without offending his far-right supporters. It's a tough sell, and even if he succeeded in cobbling together such a coalition, Kadima would probably look for the first opportunity to bring it down and call for new elections.
Netanyahu could form a government without Kadima, relying on the slim majority in the Knesset who already support him. The problem is, that would be a government of only right-wingers, an ideological imbalance that would pull Netanyahu – a hard-line hawk who, given the opportunity, says he would get rid of Hamas – further to the right than he might like.
How did Israel's right, particularly Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu party (now the country's third-largest political party, ahead of once-mighty Labor) get so powerful? In the same way that Arab extremists (both political and militant) gained power in the past: Largely moderate and secular (albeit autocratic) regimes empowered them. Voting for extremists helped the people vent their anger. It also let national leaders avoid having to address their countries' real problems.
In Israel, that sort of kowtowing coupled with public disillusionment about the peace process has created a situation in which neither all-out peace nor all-out war seems likely to deliver the security Israelis crave. That makes doing nothing the most palatable option, which benefits nobody but the settlers.
The consequences of 40-plus years of exploiting the occupation as a means of fulfilling both nationalist zeal for settling land and biblical obsession with restoring the Jews' covenant with God are making themselves apparent. Yet government after government has put off deciding what would be the state's official relationship with the land it captured in 1967, and the people who became its subjects.
As long as Israel's settlers and nationalists didn't threaten the halls of power, they could keep building their settlements, often with the direct or tacit support of the government. The thing is, in Israel, land is power, so as Israel's right expanded its influence over the West Bank, it expanded its influence over politics, too.
Settlements were originally viewed as a benefit to Israeli security – a forward tripwire alerting to an invading army, as well as a divide-and-conquer tactic for controlling the territory. Now, after a couple intifadas, failed peace deals, and disadvantageous demographics, those settlements are pushing a security-sanctioned occupation ever closer to an occupation-sponsored apartheid, making it ever harder to create a Palestinian state.
This is the reality in which Netanyahu must now forge a government. Yes, he's right wing, but more like a fiscal conservative – to use American political parlance – with a streak of pragmatism. While he would probably stonewall sincere final-status negotiations and do little to stop settlement growth, Netanyahu has also spoken of an "economic peace." That isn't enough to save Israel or create Palestine, but it shows he's not an implacable ideologue like his supporters to the right.
Ultimately, no matter who's prime minister or who's in the government, no Israeli leader can really walk the talk of two states; the political and security risks are too great.
That leaves it to Israel's only trusted ally, the United States, to push Israel past its comfort zone with unrelenting engagement and tough love, as it did 30 years ago to help bring about the treaty with Egypt.
The days of serving as enabler of Israel's bad habits must end; otherwise we face the potential for permanent political limbo, and with it, any hope of a viable Palestine and a secure and democratic Israel.