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Netanyahu in Washington on March 3
Netanyahu in Washington on March 3
Dominique Moïsi

-OpEd-

PARIS — With just days to go before the Israeli election, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict who will win the race. The latest polls show the center-left Zionist Union candidates Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni leading over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party. Of course, the country's proportional system means there will always be a coalition government. But will the new coalition lean to the left, as a poll by a Tel Aviv school renowned for its accurate predictions suggests?

Despite — or perhaps because of — Netanyahu's intervention in the U.S. Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, his run for reelection might very well prove to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

What would happen if power in Israel changed hands? As far as the Hebrew state's image is concerned, the consequences would undoubtedly be positive. But would it have a real impact on the region as a whole? Could we then conclude that Israel's "shift to the right" is not an inevitable fact, the fruit of demographics and of the growing importance of religious officials and Russian immigrants?

The center-left's potential victory, if it materializes, would certainly not be the result of its leaders' charisma. Quite simply, it would be a rejection of Netanyahu. In Israel, as in most democratic countries in the world, people vote first and foremost against somebody.

A negative vote would, as always, be explained in terms of domestic policy rather than foreign policy. We'd like to think that, by potentially sanctioning Netanyahu in the polls, Israelis would mostly want to punish a man who has contributed more than others to Israel's growing isolation, a man who has taken inconsiderate risks, militarily as well as ethically and diplomatically.

Was the invasion of Gaza a success? Has the political risk been minimized, not to mention the casualties, which Amnesty International denounced in its latest report? Is it also reasonable to widen the existing gap between Washington and Jerusalem simply for political reasons?

History's lessons

In The New York Times, a historian recently wrote a piece about the negative 1793 precedent set by Edmond-Charles Genet, the ambassador of a very young French Republic to the United States. His ambition was to force President George Washington's hand by using the considerable pro-French sentiments in Congress to secure America's backing in the war. Washington reminded the French revolutionary envoy that the U.S. president was "the only channel of communication between this country and foreign nations" and that "it is from him alone that foreign nations or their agents are to learn what is or has been the will of the nation." In the end, not only did America not join forces with Paris, but this incident played a role in Britain and the young American Republic normalizing relations.

Of course, these historical references will have no more impact on Israeli voting than on the more pressing issue of the fate of Palestinians. It must be said that the election campaign has shone only for its lowbrowness. Ridiculous scandals have damaged the image of Netanyahu and his wife — everything from their food expenses to their pocketing deposit money from bottles that should have been returned to the state coffers.

But the frivolous side of the debate has only reinforced the contrast that exists between the only democracy in the region and its Middle Eastern surroundings. It's a contrast that, perhaps paradoxically, has only isolated Israel further. What is this democracy — where Google and Samsung are both building development centers — doing in the heart of the Middle East?

A March 17 victory of Israel's center-left coalition would help improve the country's image in Washington, Paris, London, Brussels and even Berlin. But would it lead to real changes, and not just cosmetic ones, in Israeli-Palestinian relations? The answer is very probably "no."

The Palestinian Authority has no real standout leader to take over when Mahmoud Abbas retires. And as for the other regional players — Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention ISIS — it will make no difference whether Jerusalem's ruling coalition is center-left or center-right. Even as the terrorists increasingly target Jews, both inside and outside of Israel, and even as the creation of a Palestinian state looks more and more like a pious vow that nobody really believes in anymore, the change in Israel's governing majority would be more symbolic than anything else.

And yet symbols are important, and good news is so rare in the region. Netanyahu's possible defeat would signal a rejection of scare politics. But it wouldn't mean a return of hope, a word that sounds very abstract in the Middle East today.

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