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Obama in Israel’s New World

PARIS – Now that Binyamin Netanyahu has formed a new Israeli government out of a dizzying kaleidoscope of possible post-election permutations, has the country’s politics moved to the center? US President Barack Obama would be wrong to think so as he prepares for his first official visit.

The unexpected second-place finish of Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party in the recent election has certainly changed the complexion of the government: the two leading Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are out, while two smaller centrist parties, Kadima and Hatnua, are in. But those who breathed a sigh of relief at the weakening of Netanyahu’s Likud and the country’s extreme right-wing parties should be as anxious as ever.

The political horse-trading is over for the time being, and the outcome seems assured. Netanyahu will return as Prime Minister, and every party – in power or not – is ready to block, dilute, or paper over whatever policies the new government manages to adopt. In Israel, the question nowadays is not whether the center will hold, but whether it matters.

In both domestic and in international terms, Israel has not so much moved to the center as it has embraced a new type of national consensus that began to emerge in 2011. In May-June of that year, while the international community was still mooting potential land swaps for an increasingly distant peace settlement with the Palestinians, Israelis were focusing on a domestic battle over the regulation of cottage cheese.