US media focuses on turn to the right in Likud win
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US media focuses on turn to the right in Likud win

Emerging narrative emphasizes Netanyahu's backtracking on Palestinian state and warnings about Arab voters

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

The front page of the New York Times on march 18, 2015 (Screen capture via Newseum)
The front page of the New York Times on march 18, 2015 (Screen capture via Newseum)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise landslide re-election led the headlines in American media early Wednesday morning, with many outlets playing up Netanyahu’s statements during the final days of campaigning and suggesting that US-Israel relations could hit a new low.

As returns came in, outlets like CNN were forced to do a quick headline reversal, from “Netanyahu to Lose?” to “Netanyahu Claims Victory.”

Leading with the headline “Bibi Back,” the Huffington Post consolidated a number of headlines, including a New York Times report that described the recent campaign as “bruising” and warned that Netanyahu had “offended many voters and alienated allies” en route to his upset victory.

The Washington Post also played up Netanyahu’s unexpected comeback, emphasizing that “pundits were beginning to write the first drafts of Netanyahu’s political obituary” before the results began to come in Tuesday night. Many major outlets attempted to explain the coalition-building process that will now ensue to readers accustomed to a two-party system.

Beyond his surprise triumph, a major focus of coverage was the international price for Netanyahu’s sharp turn rightward on the campaign trail – his backtracking on the establishment of a Palestinian state and his renewed commitment to expanding construction in areas of Jerusalem across the 1967 lines.

Fox News – also leading with the headline “Bibi’s Back” – noted that Netanyahu “who already has a testy relationship with President Barack Obama, took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign, staking out a series of hard-line positions that will put him at odds with the international community.”

Netanyahu’s policy maneuvers – coupled with his last-minute attempts to goad his own supporters out of complacency by warning that Israeli Arabs were turning out to vote in record numbers – won him the excoriation of a number of prominent columnists as well as the editorial board of The New York Times.

In a scathing editorial, the paper declared that Netanyahu’s “outright rejection of a Palestinian state and his racist rant against Israeli Arab voters on Tuesday showed that he has forfeited any claim to representing all Israelis.”

Describing Netanyahu as “desperate, and craven, enough to pull out all the stops,” the editorial went on to argue that “his behavior in the past six years — aggressively building Israeli homes on land that likely would be within the bounds of a Palestinian state and never engaging seriously in negotiations — has long convinced many people that he has no interest in a peace agreement.”

The editorial, like the Fox News article, emphasized that Netanyahu’s recent backtrack on Palestinian statehood “will make it even harder for him to repair his poisoned relations with President Obama, who has invested heavily in pushing a two-state solution.” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen also warned that “a Netanyahu-led right-wing government will face growing international isolation, especially because of the prime minister’s open commitment to stop the emergence of a Palestinian state. Repairing relations with President Obama would be arduous. A hardening of America’s position toward Israel at the United Nations cannot be ruled out, if West Bank settlements continue to expand.”

As in a similar excoriation by columnist Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, the last-minute warning made by Netanyahu about Arab voters arriving en masse at polling places also was emphasized as a sign of Netanyahu’s rightward turn.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman extended his analysis outward, criticizing Netanyahu for his “race-baiting” comments and the Israeli electorate for buying into them – but only as a part of a larger critique of a US policy that did not recognize changing facts on the ground regarding Israel, Iraq and Iran.

With an emerging narrative of a landslide vindication for Netanyahu’s rightward turn, the popular spin on the election may become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it even more difficult for the White House and Netanyahu to find common ground in the next two years – at least if anybody has been reading the headlines.

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