JERUSALEM - Israel's election is a victory for centrism and national consensus. Indeed, that is the key to understanding not only the vote count, but also Israeli public opinion, the next government, and its policies.
From experience, most Israelis have developed a worldview that combines traditional left-wing and right-wing thinking. On one hand, they want to achieve a comprehensive political solution with the Palestinians based on creating a Palestinian state, in exchange for real, lasting peace. On the other hand, they understand that there is no Palestinian leadership strong or moderate enough to bring it about.
Both the left and the right have been proven wrong. The left offered big concessions and was ready to take high risks for the sake of peace. Yet there is no credible way to achieve an agreement with such radical forces as Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah, all of whom seek Israel's destruction. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is less extreme, but its leadership is weak, doesn't control Gaza, and is still full of hard-line elements.
This approach also lost credibility as a result of the rise of Hamas and its determination to wage permanent war on Israel; Iran's expanding influence and nuclear weapons' program; and the high - even rising - levels of hatred against Israel among Arabs and Muslims. In addition, the world didn't reward Israel for making concessions and taking risks. Indeed, the more Israel gave, the more slander and hostility it faced in many sectors.
At the same time, the right-wing mantra - victory - failed to offer a credible way to replace the Iranian and Syrian governments, or to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah. There is neither the illusion nor the desire to hold onto captured territories permanently, or to build Jewish settlements, and Israel has virtually no international support for any of these goals.
With alternatives to the status quo constrained, it has become clear that Israel is in a long transitional period in which old ideas don't work and a new approach is needed. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima party, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor party all fall - with only secondary variations - within a centrist consensus, which also reflects a popular national consensus.
Thus, regardless of who becomes prime minister, the next government will not commit to real concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for a two-state solution unless the result will be an end to the conflict and a long, stable peace. Few believe that the PA and Hamas's main rival, Fatah, will be willing or able to make such an agreement for decades. The same applies to Syria.
As a result, any real changes affecting the status of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights or West Bank settlements are a long way off. Moreover, no deal can be made with Hamas. But, since Hamas will not simply disappear - nor will Hezbollah - so the key point is to defend Israel and its citizens as they pursue their normal lives. This also means that at some point a big decision may have to be made on attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.
As a result of this national consensus - accepted by Labor, Likud, and Kadima, along with many others - the next government will most likely be a national unity government consisting of this trio. Its policy guidelines are already clear:
* To stress Israel's willingness to make peace, its readiness to agree to the creation of a Palestinian state, and its refusal to bear responsibility for the continuing conflict and violence;
* To maintain deterrence and defend Israel and its citizens from cross-border attacks;
* To preserve the best possible relations with the United States, Europe, and other countries, as long as this does not involve risks to Israel's national interests or its citizens;
* Security cooperation with the PA to prevent terrorist attacks on Israel, in exchange for economic aid and assistance to prevent a Hamas takeover;
* To strike back at Hamas - and potentially Hezbollah - based on any attacks against Israel, with the precise response to depend on timing, opportunity, and these groups' behavior;
* To work for the international isolation of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas;
* To negotiate with Syria for peace, though without illusions as to the probability of success.
The main differences between the leading Israeli parties are more atmospheric than real, mainly concerning how much to concede and how much to demand. Even so, Netanyahu will not embark on a settlement-building campaign, and Livni is not about to give away east Jerusalem.
The most important decision that Israel's new government is likely to face, when the time comes, is whether the country's well being and even survival requires acting decisively against Iran's nuclear facilities. Which path will be chosen is not clear, but it is far better that a broad coalition be responsible for making such a vital, even existential decision.
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