Netanyahu’s stunning victory

Editor’s Note: Olena Bagno-Moldavski is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies. The views expressed are her own.

Story highlights

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election in Tuesday's poll

Olena Bagno-Moldavsky: Netanyahu unlikely to rethink national security policies

CNN  — 

Israel’s ruling Likud Party pulled off a victory in Tuesday’s election – and it was a stunning one. During the campaign, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had come in for heavy criticism from across the political spectrum, for reasons ranging from concerns over his frosty relationship with the White House, to his fixation on the Iran nuclear issue, to allegations over Netanyahu’s household expenses.

Yet despite this unpromising backdrop, Likud is on course to win 30 seats in the Knesset, six seats more than the main opposition Zionist Union – headed by Isaac Herzog and Tsipi Livni, and an obvious favorite of the Israeli media establishment and Europe, Washington, and the West Bank. The blow to the Zionist Union is particularly painful because some opinion polls had actually had the party leading Likud as the campaign drew to a close. (Likud wasn’t the only winner of the night –the new center-right party Kulanu (All of Us), which focuses on the economy, also had a good showing, securing 10 seats).

Still, Likud’s resounding hasn’t settled the eventual makeup of the government – in the coming weeks, the work of negotiating a coalition will begin. With this in mind, there is a good chance that President Reuven Rivlin will ask Netanyahu to form a national unity government, either with the Zionist Union, or as the head of a right-wing coalition (although the bitter rivalry between Herzog/Livni and Netanyahu during the campaign makes the latter more likely).

Overall, the election results seemed to reflect the rightward shift of the electorate, with even voters who self-identify as centrists consistently expressing conservative positions on both the Palestinian issue and broader questions of national security. Meanwhile, the numbers for the left in Tuesday’s election – a four seats for Meretz, 24 for the Zionist Union and 14 for the Arab List suggests the bloc is some 20 seats short of a viable coalition. As a result, the international community and the Palestinian leadership will have to face the reality that negotiations over the Palestinian state will be conducted with the center-right.

So, what can we expect from the new Netanyahu government? Issues that dominated the campaign, namely security and the economy, will likely dominate.

For a start, Netanyahu will try to improve his record on domestic and social issues by introducing more proactive policies tied to housing and land reform. The issue of housing requires especially painful economic and bureaucratic changes over the Israel Land Authority and planning and zoning processes. But to address these Issues properly, Netanyahu will have to confront land owners and the housing constructors, meaning key structural reforms are unlikely in the short term.

In addition, Netanyahu will also have to repair the fractured relationship with Washington, something that may not be easy given that ties with the Obama administration will largely depends on whether a nuclear deal over Iran is reached, and what shape such a deal takes.

That raises the question over what direction the government will take over national security, and on this, the government can probably be expected to pursue the status quo. This is despite the fact that growing instability and the proliferation of non-state hostile actors suggests that Israel should instead move beyond a short-term approach and toward building a long-term, comprehensive national security strategy that could make it an integrated regional power.

Making such a change would require a political process capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than merely kicking the can down the road. Restarting communication with the West Bank leadership and properly engaging with the Arab Peace Initiative would be steps in the right direction.

All that said, this will be Netanyahu’s fourth term in office, and so there is plenty of evidence with which to judge his likely trajectory. And that suggests that he will find it easier to focus on issues tied to the economy than making any real steps forward on building a comprehensive long-tern national security strategy.

Those hoping that the prime minister might rethink his national security policies are likely to be disappointed again.