After a divisive election, Israel needs 'to heal'

The March 17 election was a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the harsh campaign left too many rips in Israeli society and in ties with the US. Much mending will be needed.

AP Photo
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem March 18 after his right-wing Likud Party scored a victory in Israel’s election.

Israel’s election on March 17 was one of its most divisive in its modern history, with sharper-than-usual name-calling and dirty tactics. The campaign even spilled over to the United States with a tendentious speech to Congress by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His party ended up winning the most seats (30) in the 120-seat Knesset. But as a dozen or more political parties now jockey to form a ruling coalition, a few key leaders saw a need to mend Israel itself, as well as its damaged ties with its main foreign partners.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who can guide formation of a governing coalition in parliament, called for a unity government between the top two winning parties: the rightist Likud of Mr. Netanyahu and the center-left Zionist Union of Isaac Herzog. The purpose, said Mr. Rivlin, would be to “prevent the rapid disintegration of Israeli democracy and additional elections in a short time.”

He was supported by another leader with similar influence, Moshe Kahlon, party chief of Kulanu (“all of us”). His party won a surprising 10 seats, making it a possible kingmaker in the Knesset. After an election campaign with an unprecedented number of clashes, schisms, and smears, Mr. Kahlon said that now is the time for Israel “to heal, to unite.”

“We want to find the common denominator that binds us together. It is time for reconciliation among us,” he said.

Netanyahu certainly has some mending to do as he heads toward a fourth term as prime minister.

During the harsh campaign, he offended Arab Israelis, who make up 20 percent of the population, with a comment that seemed racist. Arab Israelis, who for the first time united under a single slate of parties, did unusually well in the election.

He also upset his personal ties with President Obama – not only by making a speech to Congress in which he challenged the US administration’s talks with Iran but also by backtracking during the campaign on his previous support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians living under Israeli control.

In addition, he will need to patch up relations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who may be left wondering if Israel wants a negotiated peace deal.

Israel’s democracy is always lively, and serves as a model for the Middle East. But now it must also be a model for restoring national harmony.

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