"It's the economy, stupid." These words were addressed this time to Benjamin Netanyahu rather than to George Bush Sr. They reflect the unexpected result of the Israeli parliamentary elections, with the emergence of the center, represented basically by the Yesh Atid party. It is the revenge of the middle class — a weakened, frustrated, fearful middle class facing a serious economic crisis at home. It was also accentuated by the deepening divide of burden-sharing between the ultra-Orthodox religious parties and the secular ones, the former profiting from exemption from military service and other social benefits.
Avraham Burg has described Israel by saying that the country is becoming a more fundamentalist and less modern society (The New York Times, Aug. 4 ). The message to the returning prime minister is that you can form the government, but you will not be able to govern freely. Would Netanyahu form a large coalition government, bringing on board religious parties, leading to safe immobilism; or, would he choose a compatible alliance government, made of secular parties, a fragile majority government that will also be hostage to finding the minimal common economic priorities and policies that have proven to be key issues. These would be relegated by the second Netanyahu government to a marginal place on his former agenda.
Would such a government encourage the Yesh Atid party to consider the fact that facing the economic crisis and its burdens — in the long term — necessitates working to settle the otherwise shelved Palestinian issue. This would change entirely the strategic environment from one of tension, uncertainty and belligerence — with all of its economic ramifications — to one aimed at achieving comprehensive peace. This would greatly reduce tension and reduce the costs that have been incurred from an ongoing war, helping to stimulate the economy, as called for by Avraham Yehoshua in the French daily Libération on Jan. 30, 2013.
By making only minor changes — most probably on the level of discussions — the situation will be the same wine but in new bottles. Israel currently faces a trio of serious issues, but Iran is the only issue being given significant attention as the key security issue in the Middle East. This focus allows Israel to shirk its responsibilities in tackling the other two divisive issues — this time, domestic — in Israel's trio of crises: the confrontation between Israel's secular and religious political constituencies, and the country's deteriorating economic situation.
An economic situation that necessitates a change of economic philosophy and priorities is not an easy one with which to deal. Might the Palestinian issue be lost once more in this new Bermuda Triangle of Israeli politics? For how long can such a thing be sustained without a more complicating return of the conflict to the top of the Israeli political agenda.
Ambassador Nassif Hitti is head of the Arab League Mission in Paris, a permanent observer at UNESCO and a member of the Al-Monitor board of directors. The views he presents here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.