Everybody assumes that with him as PM you’re going to automatically have a narrow-based government. And yes, the Zionist Union may decide it would rather be in opposition. But if we’ve learned anything from the past, it’s that those in the opposition don’t really affect policy at all. So for all those who say it's a done deal, that we know exactly where it's going to be, I see that as conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom isn't always wrong. But I would say, before we leap to all sorts of conclusions about where this is headed, that we should realize Bibi is going to remain the Prime Minister -- and that he has an enormous amount of leverage. He's also, though, not the complete master in this situation either. He can't formally put together a government until he is asked to do so by the Israeli president. The Israeli president has already said he feels it's necessary to have a unity government. That doesn't mean that's what the result will be, but it's one of the factors in the equation. Bibi could establish a narrow government first, but still leave open the possibility of bringing the Zionist Union in. The tell-tale indicator is if he leaves some of the cabinet ministerial portfolios open, as Yitzhak Rabin did when he put together his government in 1992.
OR: How long will this take to sort out? And what do you think the chances are of a unity government?
Ross: I still am not convinced that you’re going to see a government put together until after Passover. Bibi has to decide what he wants to get done as Prime Minister and what his legacy will be. It’s hard to believe he will serve as PM many more terms, so he’s facing what are likely to be some big decisions down the road. It’s not totally in his control, remember: the Zionist Union could decide to make demands far outstripping what he’s prepared to give them. What will really become the issue is the question of whether you build beyond the blocs or not. So I would put it at fifty-fifty.
OR: If there is a national unity government, does that mean he would give Herzog the foreign ministry?
Ross: I think that would be the case.
OR: Netanyahu appeared to move right in the final days of the campaign, even moving away from the idea of a Palestinian state. How much of this was political rhetoric and how much foreshadowed a real change?
Ross: He's softened that language already. It’s one thing to campaign to be elected. It’s something else when you actually have to put together a government. If you look at his statement, if you parse it out, what he was saying is that technically you can’t implement a two state solution right now. If you did, you could end up with ISIS next to you. There’s a difference between saying “you can’t implement it now” and walking back from the principle as a whole. You can indeed say with some justice that you couldn’t implement a two state outcome now. It is a fact of life. No one could implement it in Gaza.
Keep in mind also that when you govern, you're going to have to deal with international reality. Israel is facing a delegitimization campaign and it's going to have to find ways to contend with this. This campaign is not something that can be wished away. It's something that's going to have to be countered, and it won't be countered unless Israel can position itself internationally to do so. That's why I don't think it's a given that we're going to end up with a narrow-based government. I'm just back from the region. And what I was struck by, in Jordan, in the West Bank, and in Israel, was the level of concern about the Iranians -- not so much about the nuclear issue but rather about Iran's more general behavior throughout the region. And that reality doesn't go away. Social and economic issues are important, but I think in the end the election revealed that there’s a sense of how difficult a neighborhood Israel lives in -- along with the perception that the outside world does not appreciate that difficulty. No one other than Bibi was perceived as strong enough, as prepared, to stand up for that.
I think a lot now depends upon how Bibi reads the international landscape, how he feels he needs to position himself to cope with it. And if he takes the delegitimization movement very seriously, if he feels that when it comes to Iran he needs to be able to present a somewhat different face, he could try to form a national unity government sooner rather than later – but he always has that as a potential option if he's going to take a big decision.
The Palestinians probably feel stronger because there will be no pressure on them to do anything whatsoever. All the pressure will be on Bibi internationally.
OR: What is your view of the delegitimization campaign in terms of its likelihood of effectiveness?
Ross: I’m actually focused more on what I see as a BDS movement in Europe. The ICC element of the Palestinian effort of delegitimization I see as taking a long time to play out. I think Israel could face moves in the UN on the peace issue that could be problematic if the new government looks like it’s not going to do anything. But I think it will face more efforts at delegitimization from within Europe itself.
The world today thinks of this conflict as if the Palestinians have been prepared to make peace and the Israelis have not been. That’s not the reality. The Palestinians have been able to present themselves as if they are ready to take steps. But recall that in 2000, within the framework of the Clinton parameters (of which I was a major drafter), it was Yasser Arafat who said no. When Kerry presented principles last March -- principles designed to resolve the issues of borders, refugees, and security in Jerusalem -- he got no response from the Palestinians.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special Middle East coordinator for President Bill Clinton and was instrumental to a number of peace accords, and also served under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama.