UK may now have to reset its relationship with Israel

Time to move fast: Hague (Photo: Demotix)

Time to move fast: Hague (Photo: Demotix)

The much-predicted hysterical lurch to the right turned out to be a sober march to the centre ground.

Israeli elections often produce surprises, but the results this week will have led to an unprecedented collective sigh of relief in Whitehall.

Ministers will wait until the post-election horse-trading is over before passing definitive judgment. But the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu used his first speech on Tuesday night to pledge that he will seek to build a broad-based coalition will give comfort to those in the British government who feared a hardening of the Israeli position.

There were genuine fears among supporters of Israel within the political class that the rise of Naftali Bennett and his pro-settlement Jewish Home party would prove irresistible. On election day itself, William Hague expressed his fears that the election of a hard-right Israeli government would end forever the hopes of a two-state solution.

But the powerbroker in the weeks to come will not be Mr Bennett, as expected, but Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party fought on a platform of re-activating the peace process. This has the potential to change everything.

The fragmented nature of the Israeli political system can produce some paradoxes. Mr Netanyahu has been judged both too right-wing and too left-wing by his people. And although the result will be disappointing for him, if he succeeds in forming a coalition, he will be at its centre politically, which is where he would want to be. Although it has been the focus of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, the increasing isolation of Israel did not play a large part in the election.

However, from a UK diplomatic perspective, the Likud leader has had his wings clipped, which they will hope could make him a more willing partner on the international stage.

UK ministers will be secretly delighted that Mr Netanyahu has not bolstered his mandate. The post-colonial settlement means that Britain likes to know whether to defer to other nations or to patronise them. Israel does not fit this model, particularly with Mr Netanyahu at its head.

William Hague had grown frustrated at the consistent refusal of the Israeli prime minister to bow to international pressure on settlements. Until a new coalition is formed, it will remain unclear what the future implications are for this issue.

Conventional wisdom is the enemy of a sophisticated foreign policy. Mr Hague will have to move quickly to prove he hasn’t been wrong-footed by the Israeli electorate.

This election has forced a reality check on Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Foreign Office must not miss the opportunity to broker a new relationship with Israel.

Last updated: 4:45pm, January 24 2013