We just witnessed a watershed Israeli election

Judging historic events can be hard in the moment. After all, Abraham Lincoln was precisely wrong when, at Gettysburg in November 1863, he predicted that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

But 10, 20 and 30 years from now, it is clear that Israel’s elections this week will be considered a turning point. What is unknown is what we are turning toward.

ADVERTISEMENT

Binyamin Netanyahu did not merely win an unprecedented fifth term. He put a decisive nail in the coffin of what used to be the Israeli center of the political spectrum.

He ran against three former chiefs of staff who came out of the Moshe Dayan/Yitzhak Rabin/Ariel Sharon mold, generals who earned their stripes fighting wars but saw the necessity of peace. While not shying away from the battlefield, they recognized that peace could only be achieved in a negotiating room.

Netanyahu has taken a different tack. His approach partially based on the idea that trading land for peace is a chimera, tempting Israelis to surrender something tangible in exchange for an ephemeral feeling of satisfaction.

Equally important to his approach is a conviction that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is both acceptable and sustainable. Violence against Israelis is low, the economy is humming, and governments almost everywhere except Western Europe are embracing Israel as it is.

Presented with a choice between centrist generals and a right-leaning politician, Israel’s public revealed a rightward tilt. But that is not all.

According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 65 percent of Israeli Jews 18-24 favored Netanyahu, and only 17 percent favored Benny Gantz, who led the opposition bloc. In fact, Netanyahu led strongly among all younger Jews, tied with Gantz in the 45-54 demographic, and then trailed with older Israelis.

The Israel to which many Americans have grown accustomed — seeking peace through strength, aspiring to regional integration and vaguely socialist — is definitively aging.

It is being replaced by a young and dynamic Israel premised on the idea that many problems are insoluble, that Israel must reconcile itself to periodic wars and military strikes and that Israel will always be surrounded by enemies, but that is all fine. Israel should neither be riddled by guilt nor be consumed with second thoughts. Israel needs no validation, and its robust economic, technological and military strength will sustain the nation well into the future.

Surely part of that equation is a confidence that Israel will not face pressure on its choices from the Trump administration.

The evident closeness between the president and the prime minister is not only apparent when the two men meet but also in a series of U.S. government policies that seem calculated to advance the interests of the prime minister and his political allies.

For many of his years as prime minister, Netanyahu relied on the prospect of U.S. pressure as a tool against the most hardline of his political partners. That prospect allowed him to position himself as a centrist.

As the United States casts aside positions it has maintained for decades, Netanyahu has drifted even further rightward, and the Israeli public has joined him in that progression.

While the historic nature of this shift seems clear, the judgment of history is much murkier. This election may come to be seen as the point in which Israel embraced the reality of its circumstances, ended the charade of endless negotiations and became a “normal” state with enduring internal security challenges.

Not only have the surrounding states accommodated themselves to Israel, they share with their Israeli counterparts the same enemies and the same fears. In this telling, not only does realism replace idealism, but Israel’s calculus embraces the here and now rather than a gauzy aspirational future.

This election might also emerge as the moment when Israel cast aside its ambition to be a Western-style democracy, protecting the rights of its citizens and maintaining an independent judiciary.

It could mark the moment when Israel moves decisively against Palestinian land in the West Bank, changing the balance of political power among Palestinians and invigorating rejectionists.

The election may mark the moment a decisive wedge developed between the majority of the American Jewish community, which is center-left in its orientation (especially millennials), and a rightward-drifting Israel.

ADVERTISEMENT

What seems hard to imagine is that the U.S.-Israel relationship is not affected profoundly by this election. One of the great successes of the last half-century for the pro-Israel lobby in the United States has been that support for Israel has emerged as a bipartisan issue.

It has remained so even as Israel and the United States have each become more polarized. That trend seems likely to be ending, especially as young cohorts in Israel and the United States head in quite opposite directions.

History’s verdict is still unclear, but make no mistake. We are seeing history being made before our eyes.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, the Brzezinski chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views here represent his own views and not those of the Center, which does not endorse specific policies.