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Dunsmore: Israeli Election

Just four days before Israelis would cast their ballots, normally reliable polls were showing that a new center-left coalition called Zionist Union, was expected to gain four more seats in the Israeli Knesset than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party. Instead, Likud won four more than the Zionist Union. How did that happen?

Well, in the final few days before the vote, Netanyahu moved into a full throated fear campaign – strident warnings of Iran’s nuclear potential; that the Islamic extremists ISIS would take over any independent Palestinian state; and that Israeli Arabs were threatening the future – by voting “in droves” against him.

To quote the New York Times lead editorial “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outright rejection of a Palestinian state and his racist rant against Israeli Arab voters on Tuesday showed that he has forfeited any claim to representing all Israelis.”

Tom Friedman, the Times’ top Mideast analyst added, “It is hard to know what is more depressing: that Netanyahu went for the gutter in the last few days in order to salvage his campaign — or the fact that this seemed to work.”

These strong critiques notwithstanding, Israel’s next prime minister is almost certainly going to Benjamin Netanyahu. I say almost certainly, because in fact, Likud won 30 seats, and needs 61 to govern so it must form a coalition. That could take a few weeks of negotiations.

Still, other right-wing parties including those of the settlers, Russian emigres and the ultra- orthodox religious, could give a Netanyahu-led coalition 67 seats. And there are no likely coalition partners who will pull Netanyahu toward the center of the political spectrum.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election must be a disappointment for President Barack Obama. And in an usually critical statement yesterday, the White House called the Prime Minister’s remarks about Israeli Arabs “deeply concerning” and “divisive” - a clear sign there will be no attempt to paper over major policy differences with Israel.

President Obama still believes a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine would also enhance America’s security interests. But given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent pronouncements renouncing a Palestinian state that looks like a non-starter.

Mr. Netanyahu is also likely to remain a strong, vocal opponent of any nuclear deal with Iran. The end of March is the current deadline for a framework agreement - the end of June the deadline for filling in the details.

If there is no nuclear deal, U.S.-Israeli tensions could get worse, especially if Netanyahu then tries to goad Obama into military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. For by their recent words and actions - this is what the Israeli leader, most congressional Republicans and a few key Democrats - appear to be trying to accomplish.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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