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What does the election of another Likud-led coalition mean?

Israel's general election will take place on Tuesday 22 January. It has long been forecast that Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister, will win a comfortable majority. Opinion polls have varied in recent months, but the consensus remains that the next government will be another Likud-led coalition. The party joined forces with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, previously run by settler Avigdor Lieberman, in October and they'll run on a single list. This Likud-Beitenu pairing is likely to win a comfortable majority. However, given Israel's proportional representation system, there have been some surprise contenders. Likud-Beitenu has lost some votes to Bayit Yehudi, a new ultra-religious nationalist party headed by Naftali Bennett, a former adviser to Netanyahu. It looks like this party will come in at third place (after Labor), more or less guaranteeing it a significant role in the new coalition. All of this leads to the conclusion that come next week, Israel's government will be its most right-wing and hawkish ever.

What does this mean for the peace process? It goes without saying that it is unlikely that talks will resume any time soon with Netanyahu at the helm. While he has nominally pledged his support to a two-state solution in 2009, he has done little towards creating it – indeed, quite the opposite. During his last term, Netanyahu oversaw the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, which are widely considered to be the biggest obstacle to peace. Around 500,000 Jewish settlers live in constructions on Israeli-occupied land in the West Bank. The continued expansion of these settlements makes the possibility of a viable Palestinian state along those borders ever less likely. And it does not look like the trend will be reversing any time soon. Speaking to Israeli newspaper Maariv this week, Netanyahu said that if he was re-elected, not a single settlement would be removed. "We haven't uprooted any settlements, we have expanded them," he said. "Nobody has any lessons to give me about love for the Land of Israel or commitment to Zionism and the settlements." Palestinian negotiating teams have made it a condition of talks that settlement construction must stop.

If Likud, Netanyahu's right-wing party, has been intransigent in past dealings with Palestinians, the new party and likely coalition partner, Bayit Yehudi, could take it to a new level. Going a step further than settlement building, the party is in favour of annexing parts of the West Bank. Some analysts have suggested that Netanyahu and Likud are being forced to step up their hawkish rhetoric to prevent Bayit Yehudi from eating into their share of the vote too much. The presence of these far-right and ultra-nationalist elements in the election campaign have steered the tone of the debate drastically to the right. Their presence in a future government will make it very difficult for Likud to offer any concessions to the Palestinians at all (and given how few and far between those concessions were even in the last government, this is a bleak outlook).

Indeed, if the forecasts are borne out and this super right wing government formed, it is difficult to see how Netanyahu will retain even his lukewarm commitment to a Palestinian state, without watering it down further. The new government looks set to include several ministers who explicitly oppose Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza under any circumstances.

The Labor party, the main opposition, has mainly fought its election campaign on domestic socio-economic issues, and so no-one has made the case for the alternative approach: diplomacy and a commitment to human rights. Within Israel, a movement called Real Democracy has been established, to allow Israeli citizens to donate their vote to a Palestinian, in protest that they are denied the vote. The organisers hope that thousands will sign up by election day.

While this may register objection with the system, of course it is unlikely to change the outcome. And the outcome should be of serious concern to anyone concerned with the peace process. The longer peace talks are stalled, the more settlements are built, and the more reactionary the Israeli government becomes, the less likely the establishment of an independent Palestinian state is. Many Palestinians and supporters of Palestine now advocate a single state, with equal rights for all citizens. But this would undermine Israel's fundamental identity as a Jewish state, and it is difficult to envision that happening. Perhaps most worrying is the openly expressed strategy in some sections of the Israeli right, that if the country stands firm in denying any concessions to the Palestinians, the international community will eventually accept that Palestine will not be granted independence, much as it has with the Kurds.

The outlook for co-operation between Israel and Palestine and movement on the stalled peace process was already bleak. But it seems that after Tuesday, it will be significantly worse.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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